The Upheaval and the Solution
By Jeffrey Tucker
A few months after my original article on “libertarian brutalism,” published by the Foundation for Economic Education, a very smart thinker named Robin Koerner reached out to me for an interview. It ended up being more of a discussion and then a co-led seminar.
Robin was just discovering the fullness of the liberal tradition and I was just coming to terms with some intellectual failures in our ranks, failures I worried were going to cause problems down the line. The many interviews that followed explored a huge range of topics in history, philosophy, economics, ethics, and aesthetics. They are all transcribed herein. We are different people from different lands with different backgrounds but learned so much together during these times of incredible social and political upheaval.
The interviews began only a little more than a year before Donald Trump appeared on the scene, and we both watched with morbid curiosity as vast numbers of former Ron Paul supporters—people we had both imagined at least had the basics correct—chase him all the way to the White House. Yes, it is hard for some to imagine why. And yet, the answer lies somewhere in these wonderful interviews we conducted, in which we chronicle the intellectual convolutions that happened in our ranks and to our country over the last few years.
Robin caught me at an interesting time. I had worked within one paradigm for most of my professional career, regarding the great struggle of our time as binary: a struggle between liberty and state, without complication or complexity. The state need to be eliminated, period. Within that paradigm, the answer to all problems seems obvious: get mad, get rid of the establishment, overthrow it, and watch liberty dawn.
I gradually came to realize that there are problems in the transition, so to speak. The revolutionaries can often pose a greater danger to public order than the state itself, and pose a different kind of threat to liberty (yes, I know that is unbearably obvious from a brief look at history). My proposed solution in avoiding this was to cultivate a more intense appreciation for the aesthetics of liberty as put on display within the liberal tradition itself, as exemplified by Smith, Hume, Jefferson, Tocqueville, and their successors. The core of my case against brutalism is precisely that it imagines a libertarianism unhinged from the liberal tradition, boiled down to a few postulates and boiled back up again through anger and dogma. In other words, for libertarianism to become the humane outlook it is supposed to be, it needs to recapture its liberalism, without with it wouldn’t exist. (In fact, the words were definitionally indistinguishable to the postwar generation that first started using the term.)
Meanwhile, Robin knew exactly what I meant by that, having cut his teeth on the presidential campaign of 2012. He had come from a scientific background and for a long time, like many others, had accepted a statist outlook on politics by default, until he began to dig deeper and found himself attracted to the American Constitution and the English liberal tradition out of which it arose. His writings had made some waves during the years when Ron Paul was running for president, because of his capacity to speak to a broad range of humane concerns and in favor of diminishing the role of the state in our lives. He never took his outlook as far as I had mine: he stopped at what is called minarchism while I went all the way with an anarchist outlook.
And yet we had both begun to develop affections for the Hayekian view of society and politics as fragile, evolved, and contingent to some extent on time, place, and inherited tradition. Looking back at these conversations, I can see what we were both up to. We were struggling to shore up classical liberalism from the two great threats of our time: the ideological left and the ideological right. You can see as the conversations evolve that we grow ever more aware of this nature of this project and its challenges.
The thoughtfulness and calmness of these discussions belie the political moment in which we find ourselves. The left is out of ideas and out of money, soundly rejected at the ballot box in country after country. To the shock and amazement of many, the replacement hasn’t been a new liberty but a new threat. Arguably, a new anti-left movement rooted in nativism, nationalism, protectionism, and just as statist and sometimes more so than the left, has risen up to take its place. Some libertarians who had long been habituated to seeing only enemies on the left are a bit shell-shocked by the turn of events. You can see these things coming through in these discussions.
It became fascinating to both of us how, once having covered the ins and outs of current politics, we tended to veer toward the topics of beauty and truth, for these are both areas that are eschewed by the dogmatic left and right, and are all too often neglected within the libertarian paradigm as well. And yet these topics lie at the core of the meaning of our lives. Any political vision that neglects to insist on them is necessarily detached from human reality.
The political question really comes down to what institutions need to be in place to allow beauty and truth to thrive in society. Is there ever a role for the state to nudge the social order in the direction of what people think of as true and beautiful or do the statist means always tend toward the opposite—driving out what is true and beautiful? If libertarians do not grapple with this topic and provide compelling answers, we will necessarily fail to persuade.
Of this we are both convinced: the future is unknown and yet shaped by the ideas we as a society hold in our hearts concerning the look and feel of the good life. The defenders of freedom need to step up with public argument, hearts and minds all in, and we need to do so not with bombast and unhinged anger but with thoughtfulness and reason. These have always been the marks of genuine liberalism and will continue to be in the future.
(Note: special thanks to Hema Gorzinski for transcribing the interviews, and thereby making this book possible.)
I. THREATENING LIBERTARIANISM
ROBIN KOERNER: Welcome to one of the most exciting editions of Blue Republican Radio for the liberty-curious. This is me, Robin Koerner, the original Blue Republican, and today I have an extremely special guest. I don’t want to offend anybody else that I’ve spoken to, but maybe the most special guest so far. Some of you may know him as a publisher for the liberty movement. Some of you may know him as a fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education. Some may know him as a scholar at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Others, as a faculty member at Acton University; and certainly some of you may know him for his days as VP at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Others may just know him as the Libertarian who looks better than any of us in a bowtie. Jeffrey Tucker, welcome to Blue Republican Radio! How are you?
JEFFREY TUCKER: I am just great, and I’m just thrilled that you gave me a call and suggested I come on the show. I’m super excited about this interview! You seem like you’re asking the right questions, and I hope we can sort of dig into these topics.
ROBIN: Excellent. Just for my listeners—I should tell them that you and I spoke for about just 10 minutes yesterday, and the one reason I wanted to get you on this show now was because of an article that you wrote that came out last month that I would like to talk about at length. As you just said, I’m asking the right questions, and I think you’re giving some of the right answers in this article. The title of the article that was posted at The Freeman (Foundation for Economic Education) was simply, “Against Libertarian Brutalism.” You and I don’t know each other—save for our 10-minute conversation yesterday—but I think, in some ways, our approach to Libertarianism might be cut from the same cloth, even though you suggested that maybe your politics are somewhat more radical than mine. That’s not really what matters here. What’s the thesis, Jeffrey, of this fantastic article that you wrote, “Against Libertarian Brutalism”?
JEFFREY: To explain the piece, I’ll have to give a just a bit of background. There has been a brand of Libertarian rhetoric that had been bothering me for several years, and I couldn’t really put my finger on what it was. It seemed excessively reductionist. I don’t mind a hard edge but it seemed to be exclusively interested in a narrow range of issues that sort of artificially truncate the sole vision of liberty. The idea of liberty [encompasses] the whole of civilization and the whole of human life in all of its complexity, its beauty, its spontaneity, and its magnificence. There’s a brand of Libertarianism that has sort of a certainty about a narrow range of issues that are emphasized to the exclusion of everything else. I knew it sort of bothered me, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.
Then I ran across this architectural school that was sort of alive in the 1950s and the 1970s called “brutalism,” and it’s a very interesting view that comes out as an aggressive stance against making buildings beautiful, aesthetically pleasing, or marketable, or appealing—curbside appeal is out. Instead, buildings should be purely functional and it’s wrong and sinful in some way to add anything to a building other than its pure function. All accoutrements are gone; all history is robbed from it. There’s kind of a strange primitivism associated with brutalist architecture. When I read about brutalism and architecture, I thought: “Hey, there are some brands of ideological brutalism out there, and they may come from the left and the right.” But I began to notice that there is a kind of Libertarian brutalism that does exactly this. It just focuses on, for example—like a truth pencil—like the non-aggression principle, the idea that you should not aggress against person or property. It reduces that to a very narrow range of considerations and then expands from that narrow range out to a series of issues to the exclusion of every other consideration. So you get kind of a strange being, a kind of a weird-looking ideology that is actually unappealing, unbeautiful, and doesn’t allow room, for example, for experimentation, for error, for spontaneity, for play, for wider theoretical investigation because it’s so sure of itself. If you look at the brutalist school of architecture, one thing you will find is that is catechetically dogmatic.
ROBIN: That was the first word that I wanted to throw at you: “dogmatic.” There’s a sense in which brutalism seems maybe to depend on dogmatism? It certainly corresponds to an epistemic dogmatism.
JEFFREY: It’s a narrow dogma, right? It’s a sort of sure-footedness on one or two principles, and it’s not curious about anything else. It’s not curious about any other inundations, elaborations, special considerations—considerations of aesthetics, of history, of peculiarities of time and place. It’s uninterested in letting systems sort of evolve since all answers are already known. This kind of brutalist dogmatism is not interested in research; it’s not interested in letting things flower and grow in any kind of spontaneous way. This is a problem for Libertarianism because the essence of human liberty is precisely that it permits the widest possible range within the sphere of human action for play, experimentation, spontaneity, circumstances, time and place, and the organic growth of institutions—precisely because we don’t know all the answers. [That] is why we need human liberty—because liberty allows us to discover and gradually evolve.
But a brutalist form of Libertarianism would presume that we know already exactly how the world is going to work, and we’re going to shove it down everybody’s throat and make it that way. Now this is a threat to people. Why should anybody be threatened by Libertarianism, right? It’s not a threatening ideology. It just basically says that you should be free as long as you don’t hurt other people: just do what you want. That is not threatening ideology. So why does Libertarianism threaten so many people? I think a lot of it has to do with this sort of brutalistic approach that you see popping up here and there.
People would demand to know really who are the brutalists, “give me one example.” Well, the point was not to point to any particular thinkers but to point to a style of thought, a sort of an archetype that variously appears in the course of rhetoric over politics. I want to identify that mental—that intellectual—tendency, and warn against it and essentially say that brutalism is un-Libertarian really precisely because it doesn’t allow for the free experimentation—intellectually, ideologically, or in the real world.
ROBIN: It’s as if there are some people who believe in, or purport to believe in, a philosophy that celebrates the freedom to behave and to think as one wants, but you’re not allowed to apply that freedom to your thoughts about liberty itself or how to achieve liberty. It’s kind of self-falsifying.
JEFFREY: It’s very interesting. There are really many tendencies within the Libertarian world. I mean, you have some people that just want to let, for example, the legal order play itself out and let juridical history sort of inform the way we deal with issues like restitution, punishment in the cases of crimes. That’s just one example of many. There’s another form of Libertarianism that already presumes that it knows the answers to all questions, and all we really need to do is sort of sit in armchair with an armful of postulates and spin out all truths from there—regardless of what happens to be going on outside the window. I think that this is one reason why people find Libertarianism strange and alien to the human experience, and—we have to face it—people do find. People are sometimes alarmed when they hear Libertarians talk. I think that this is very reason; it’s this sort of brutalistic non-interest in the facilities of human life. This is why I warned against it. The article just exploded. I wrote this, by the way, Robin, as not so much a public article; I wrote it as a private study to myself. I wanted to figure it out. That’s why the article has the tone that it has—this is sort of careful, step-by-step approach. I wrote it as a memo to myself because I wanted to figure it out.
ROBIN: I get it. Some of the best articles are written that way.
JEFFREY: I sent to a few friends, and they said, “My god, this is extremely revealing. You can’t go another day without publishing it.” So reckless and dangerous as I tend to be, I just pushed “submit” and that was it.
ROBIN: I’m so glad you did because I think it’s one of the best and most important articles that have been written in a while for the Liberty Movement vis-à-vis actually having some success making our views mainstream. We’re going into the break, Jeffrey, we’re gonna just carry straight on when we come back.
ROBIN: Welcome back to Blue Republican Radio where I am speaking with Jeffrey Tucker. Jeffrey; we were talking about this wonderful article that you put out recently, “Against Libertarian Brutalism.” And we were talking about dogmatism: this sense of there is nothing left for us to learn because as these pure Libertarians, we have found the answers, so we don’t really need to look for circumstances in the world where our dogma may not easily fit. We don’t have to worry about it because our principles give us everything we know. It strikes me that it’s a very unscientific approach to knowledge. Science advances, for example, by having the humility to know that it never has arrived at absolute truth. It gets closer and closer to it by being aware that its approach to it is always asymptotic, right? I think maybe we need a bit of that in our politics as Libertarians.
JEFFREY: This is absolutely true. This is again characteristic of the brutalist architectural movement—they already knew exactly what a building should look like. There’s never any question in their minds about experimentation or anything.
ROBIN: Most of the brutalist buildings would be associated with the Soviet era—the 50s, 60s, 70s, right?
JEFFREY: Well, sure, but you can find them everywhere. It was very interesting—I was just in Atlanta, and there were two buildings next door each other. One was kind of an AT&T building, built in the time when AT&T was kind of a government monopoly and it’s an absolutely brutalist structure. The building right next to it was kind of an investment bank and some other things. Most of them were very, very tall. The AT&T building was brutalist, hard to look at, very ugly, and uneventful. The one next to it was absolutely elegant, aspirational, and it just absolutely inspired you to look at it. I think there is an ideological component here: we have to aspire as thinkers about politics, economics and the rest of it to have that sort of aspirational tone and approach. We have to look to building things within our minds that are actually vast, marketable, and more in touch with the human experience than just a narrow range of principles that we forever spin out and apply to all things and all times.
ROBIN: You contrast this ideological brutalism with humanitarianism, or, rather, brutalist Libertarianism vs. humanitarian Libertarianism.
ROBIN: Talk a little about that and just unpack whether you’re trying to talk up a certain flavor of the Libertarian ideology or whether you’re focused on the way one holds whatever flavor of Libertarian ideology one may maintain.
JEFFREY: I don’t think it’s just merely a matter of rhetoric or even marketing. There is so much confusion. It’s interesting how much commentary this article has generated. So many people were accusing me of saying things that I didn’t actually say. I’m not just talking about a matter of marketing here, you know, how we present our message—although that is part of it. Brutalism doesn’t care in the slightest bit what people think. You get this with Libertarians all the time: they’ll just sort of assert things in internet memes and their own rhetoric—no matter how implausible it may be—and they’re self-satisfied [because] they were able to come to this dogmatically true position, assert it, and reward themselves for their bravery in that respect. This goes on all the time. Anyway, it’s not just merely a matter of marketing; it’s a matter of the style of thought. This is why I wanted to talk about humanitarian Libertarianism. We have to remember that ultimately the purpose of liberty is to serve life itself and to serve real people in their real lives. If we can’t come up with an intellectual apparatus that seems to actually encourage this idea of human flourishing and make humanity better off than it would otherwise be, we’ve got a serious problem. That’s where we’re going to come off as threatening. It would just be a terrible thing if Libertarianism became an alternative central plan, you know? “We’ve got better plans than your plans.” That’s not the idea.
ROBIN: Right. Absolutely! There’s a sense in which it has to be like that if it is not a paradigm that is responsive to the environment in which it is applied, right? If something is not being responsive to where it’s being applied, then it is just being imposed—by definition.
JEFFREY: That’s right. The fact is that the vast majority of human life consists of various contingencies on time and place, on technologies, and things that cannot be known or understood with a purely abstract option. That’s sort of timeless and takes no account of situations. So, if we have a sort of Libertarianism that is just really uninterested in the exigencies of technology, time and place, human choice, culture, and all of these kinds of things…. [then] it is essentially something that’s very primitive, artificial, and might be actually fundamentally threatening.
ROBIN: Are you making an argument for consequentialist politics, consequentialist Libertarianism as opposed to “deontological”? It kind of sounds that way, right? If we’re talking about being responsive, again, to the environment in which we’re applying our principles… everything you’re saying is essentially consequentialist.
JEFFREY: I’ve had people ask me this; I don’t like to say that. I must tell you that I’ve never really seen much contradiction between, for example, believing in fundamental human rights and believing that the consequences of your intellectual endeavors and of social order matter just as much as individual human rights. They don’t seem apart for me. I do think that a rights-based paradigm that does not pay have any regard whatsoever to the results is a problem. I really do. I would not want to embrace either the consequentialist view or its alternative exclusively, but as a holistic understanding—yeah.
ROBIN: I think it makes sense that the correctness of liberty, Libertarianism as a philosophical position, can be tested on an ongoing basis, empirically—i.e. by looking to its consequences. If Libertarianism works—if it is right deontologically—then we should be able to test it as being effective consequentially.
JEFFREY: I think that that is exactly right. I think you’re right too that I tend to use consequentialist language because I think that this is the way our minds work. None of us would like to live in a world of massive conflict, violence, contention, and hate. We want to live where there is human cooperation, where there are opportunities to creatively serve others; where violence is kept at bay in some way; where capital can be formed so prosperity can flourish; where human associations of all sorts can take place. That’s what I would call a good society. We want to live in a good society. If you can call that consequentialism, okay. I don’t find that necessarily contradictory to human rights and that sort of thing. But I do think we can get sort of carried away, asserting that Libertarianism is only about your right and my right to be jerks and to be left unimpeded in our malevolent desires. I bring up, for example, racism. Racism is a very hot topic and maybe one of the reasons why the article kind of went viral in a way. One thing you can always count on a brutalist to do is to come to the defense of racism, sexism, and other kind of socially destructive impulses insofar as they express themselves in non-violent terms. They get very passionate about this issue, but I think what you don’t get from the brutalist-style argument here is that these are after all regrettable things.
ROBIN: Hold on to that thought, Jeffrey, because we’re going in to the break. We’ll carry on when we get back. Thank you.
ROBIN: Welcome back to Blue Republican Radio with me, Robin Koerner, speaking to the awesome Jeffrey Tucker. Jeffrey, when we went into break you were starting to talk about these kinds of defenses—at least of people’s rights to be sexist or racist as long as they don’t express that right in a physically aggressive or threatening way. As you were kind of going there, I was recalling something that I read in your article that almost gave me a Gestalt Switch. I don’t know if you actually said it, but you began to indicate it. I might call it “extremist” or “epistemically extremist,” “purist,” or “dogmatic”—you’re calling it “brutalist” Libertarianism: it’s not so much an extreme or distilled version of Libertarianism or the classical liberal tradition: it’s actually decidedly illiberal. In other words, it represents a denial of the classical liberal tradition that has brought us our Libertarianism. Can you talk a little bit about that? I think you were anyway, but I just wanted to pull that out of your article because it’s very interesting.
JEFFREY: That’s exactly right. The reason liberalism has triumphed in the world has nothing to do with the right of people to hate, or because it’s some sort of closed system of thought in which we already know everything. Actually, Liberalism’s great gift to the world was precisely that it observed that society is better of when it’s not managed from the center. That permits people’s highest individual motivations and drives to express themselves associationally in the graduation of society to evermore prosperity and human dignity—universal human dignity. So, for example, Liberalism is what I think rightly considered to be responsible for the liberation of women from all forms of despotisms that have been around from the beginning of time, for the end of slavery, and for the opening up of a more tolerant society. This is what Liberalism granted us. It’s very strange to see that Libertarianism has been dragged out as a kind of apparatus in the defence of exactly the opposite impulses—illiberal impulses, intolerance, and so on.
ROBIN: All violent ideologies—I think it is true to say—become violent inasmuch as they are dogmas or purported as dogmas, right? I think a lot of Libertarians think that they can be dogmatic Libertarians because the content of their dogma is Libertarian—and so makes them completely not dangerous. But actually, your dogma is no less dangerous just because it says “Libertarian” on the tin.
JEFFREY: You’ve really put your finger on it, and this is why it took me so long to write this article. The brutalist voice made me uncomfortable, but rarely do they say things that I can specifically disagree with. It’s just a kind of creepy sense of something is going wrong. One thing I’ve been playing around with in my mind that I didn’t actually put in the article is that brutalism and statism have a lot in common with each other. This sense of already knowing how the world should work, believing that there is one model for the whole of society, this sort of denial of people’s right to experiment, to learn, and to express their diversity and a range of styles through a gradual organic evolution of life. The state is against that. That’s the problem with the state—it’s sort of regimented, frozen, and bureaucratic…
ROBIN: Yes, and one size fits all.
JEFFREY: One size fits all. It’s got a catechetical teaching about it. The only response is to simply obey. In a strange way, brutalistic libertarianism mirrors that same kind of mentality; it’s just that it attaches that word, “liberty,” to it. This is one of the reasons why my vision of society is essentially that which functions completely and wholly in the absence of the state: because of the errors and failures of the brutalistic mindset. It creates eyesores all over the world. The state has created eyesores all over the world. It’s kind of a dreadful prospect to imagine that Libertarianism in its brutalistic form if on the loose would create similar problems as the state itself has created. Already knowing the answers in advance, already imposing a plan on society that’s derived not from experience but rather from just our own wishes and imaginings about how life should work from one or two simple postulates.
ROBIN: It’s interesting that you talk about the eyesores that were built on the back of architectural brutalism and were obviously just an analogy to the ideological eyesores, you might say, of Libertarian brutalism. They matter because if you go through history, it has never been the case that more liberties have been won by a purist, dogmatic minority educating enough people in their vision such that all those people decide to make some big change to their political system or the political class. It’s always been a much more organic process, in which people, maybe in response to the tyrannical abuse of power that gets into the culture, which then reacts—not because they’re trying to establish some dogma that they’ve all signed up to—but because they’re trying to defend something they already take for granted—some freedoms they take for granted—that they think are being threatened. They push back. For us to be able to affect the mainstream action against tyranny, we need those kinds of mass movements that have brought us a thousand years of constitutional liberty in the Anglo tradition. We have to be approachable. We have to be the kind of people whom other people want to be like, whom people want to listen to. So dogmatism is surely going to be self-defeating for the mainstreaming of Libertarian ideas.
JEFFREY: I think that’s right. There is another thing too. I really like what you said when you said that people’s assertions of liberty—when we achieve more liberty—are often about defending associations and institutions that have already been built that seem to be under attack by an overreach of power. What that implies, I think, for liberty-minded people is that we need to get busy building institutions—whether they’re businesses, or technologies, or educational institutions, or just about anything. That’s probably more important than writing 5000 op-eds just repeating a very wrong assertion of our rights. It’s probably more effective to get out and build liberty rather than just continue to assert this narrow brand of a rights-based, truncated, and reduced form of Libertarianism. By the way, I don’t find evidence anywhere in history before the last several decades of a brutalistic form of Libertarianism or liberty-mindedness. If you look back at people like Lord Acton, Frédéric Bastiat, the work of Hayek, Mises, William Graham Sumner, or you could go back to Adam Smith, go back to the list of greats. You don’t find this evidence of this brutalism; you find very broad argumentation, very specific argumentation that covers a huge and vast range of human experience that’s very compelling. It’s about beauty, complexity, service to others, the organic community, and the gradual emergence of cultural norms, “spontaneous order” (as Hayek always called it), about the multifarious private relationships and how graceful they can be in this world. These are the types of arguments that you’re going to see throughout the whole of history of liberty. Then in the last several decades, this has begun to change and you begin to see all these considerations dismissed as sort of wimpy, stupid and irrelevant compared to my right to be an asshole.
ROBIN: All of those authors that you mentioned there…certainly I get the sense that they were writing to help us move in a better direction. They weren’t presenting some utopian destination, and I think a lot of this kind of brutalist mindset again corresponds to the arrogance of “I already have the answers.” It’s like: “I already know exactly what the destination is to be” whereas none of those writers were writing in that spirit.
JEFFREY: That’s right. Can I just give one very specific example that illustrates your point here? It’s been common knowledge in the liberty-minded world for a hundred years, maybe two hundred years, that money needs to be reformed radically, you know, made more sound or fixed-up. Libertarians have had, over the decades, developed these plans for top-down reform. One day, in the blink of an eye, we see something emerge on the internet in the form of cryptographically-based currency. It’s run out on a free forum. We’re seeing this new money emerge with evermore rigor all over the world as a global institution—in fairly surprising ways. This is not something that would have been predicted by anyone’s catechisms, if you know what I mean. This is a surprise, and as a result it was very interesting for me to watch how many Libertarians have sort of been radically resistant to even facing the reality outside their windows about this because it sort of contradicts the theory. This is a problem when your theory gets overly invested in a single reform plan, or a single perspective of how the world should work. You become blind actually to other possibilities.
ROBIN: Yes. One thing we also discussed in the break was that we need to bring these ideas to the mainstream—to not keep them in the purist corner of the Libertarian room. Is there a point where the Liberty movement, broadly, may have to decide, or realize perhaps, that those dogmatic brutalists who call themselves “Libertarians” are actually not our extreme wing, but they’re our ideological opponents?! Are we looking at, potentially, a schism here? Would it actually help for there to be one?
JEFFREY: Robin, I would not have said so before my article appeared because I was dealing with archetypes. I argued that there are many ways in which brutalism is compelling. We all wake up on the wrong side of the bed some days and have these sorts of brutalistic impulses. My article is actually more sympathetic with this perspective than I turned out to be 2–3 weeks after the article appeared because a very tiny minority was just darn near violent towards this piece.
ROBIN: I should say, Jeffrey, that was exactly my experience with the piece that I wrote, “Libertarian Purist: Libertarian on Everything—Except Liberty,” which covers a lot of this ground. There were a lot of people who really, really saw the importance of the point, but there was this hardcore that basically took it personally and the vitriol that came back was insane.
JEFFREY: Yeah, I couldn’t believe the stuff that people were attributing to me. It was just an incredible thing. What was very nice about the reaction in some ways was that some people read my article, Robin, and said, “Well, I don’t really see what you mean here,” but then over the next couple of weeks, they began to see exactly what I was talking about.
ROBIN: Yeah, just by looking at the comments on the article?
JEFFREY: Yeah, looking at the comments of the article and seeing the things appearing on social media, and they’re like: “Oh my god! I guess brutalism is more of a problem than I thought. It does exist and it’s a problem.”
ROBIN: The way I put this is that Libertarianism as a philosophy really has broadly three dispositions. It has a disposition toward humility, especially toward intellectual humility—“I don’t know what’s best for you.” It has a disposition toward—you might say its only requirement is—tolerance—“you can do what you want as long as it doesn’t hurt me even if what you’re doing isn’t something that I would choose to do.” And then, because we want not to have a state but we want to help our fellow man through non-statist means, we talk about civil society, so it also has a disposition toward civility. So you have civility, humility, and tolerance. It turns out that those three things—which to me just drop out of the political philosophy itself—are exactly the things the brutalists don’t display towards everybody else, but they are the things that we need to sell our message in a way that can really infect the psyche and change the zeitgeist.
JEFFREY: You exactly said it. Not only do they not emphasize these various virtues, but the brutalist mindset regards them as just outrageous distractions.
ROBIN: And compromises. They’re all regarded as compromises of principle, right?
JEFFREY: That’s right. Because [the brutalists believe that] they’re the only true believers in liberty, but actually I don’t think that they are. I think you’re right; I think that this brutalistic view is actually reductionist and unthoughtful, uncolored, and uncorrected by human experience. This has no regard for the larger context from which liberty came to triumph over despotism. I don’t know that it really is very helpful going forward either. I think that is exactly right. I’m particularly intrigued by the term, “tolerance,” because I think I used this term, “tolerance,” in my article as kind of being a liberal virtue. By the way, I took this directly from Mises. Mises’ book—I think it’s from 1927 called Liberalism—is a very, very good starting point for anybody who wants to test whether we’re going off the rails or not. It was one of the final statements in his very closing period of the Classical Era.
ROBIN: Jeffrey, hold on. I’m sorry to interrupt. We’ve got the last break in.
ROBIN: What a great discussion this has been with Jeffrey Tucker. Jeffrey, we’re in the last 2 1/2 minutes of the show now, but you just raised at the end of the last segment, Liberalism—the book. Mises’ Liberalism. What were you going to say?
JEFFREY: I was just going to say that if you forget what liberalism is, go back and visit it and test your current beliefs against what you find in that book because it’s in the true liberal spirit. Mises highlights tolerance as a very high virtue within the liberal world. Brutalism is the opposite of tolerance; it is completely intolerant. Robin, let me say something here—I’ve thought a lot about those questions like “Where does brutalism come from?” The original brutalistic architects—they didn’t believe in beauty; they didn’t believe in building anything really worth anything, because they assumed that it was all going to be blown up by government anyway because they had just gone through World War II, for example. In other words, they were despairing, and their architectural styles did not express anything like a hope for humanity—quite the opposite.
I think we have to ask ourselves whether or not, perhaps, that is the fundamental problem behind the brutalistic spirit that you find popping up in the Libertarian world. It’s an expression of despair. A belief that the world cannot be made better so we might as well blow it up, or at least have fun offending people in the meantime before it blows itself up. This is what I think might actually be behind the whole thing. There’s a kind of nihilism really. But once you realize: “No, no—this is wrong. There is hope, the world can be improved, the world can be made more beautiful, made more free—through our own actions and through the social movements that we’re involved in, you can get a little more connected to reality; you get a little more connected to the human experience and you begin to understand that liberty is not really—as I’ve said—just some sort of catechetical exercise. It really is about the highest wishes for the flourishing of humanity and the social order in a very real way that connects directly with people’s lives. People are not our enemies. They’re our friends in the cause for liberty, and we need to be looking for friends and recruiting people from all walks of life into this world. I don’t think the brutalist experience is going to do that. I think what’s going to do it is a broad-based humanitarian form of liberalism. I myself consider myself an anarchist—a humanitarian anarchist, I think. A world without the state is a beautiful place. We’re going to get better at expressing that.
ROBIN: Jeffrey, thank you! That is the last word. I have loved talking to you. Thank for you being with me on Blue Republican Radio.
JEFFREY: Thank you very much for having me, Robin.
II. LIBERALISM, LIBERTY, LIFE AND LOVE
ROBIN KOERNER: … The largest audience figures that Blue Republican Radio has had so far … was when I interviewed the awesome Jeffrey Tucker. We finished that interview excited about the possibility of continuing on some of the themes that we discussed. I think it’s fair to say—and I will invite Jeffrey to disagree with me if I’m wrong there—that he and I see much of what we need to do in the Liberty Movement in the same way, so I’m delighted to say he is back to carry on where we left off last time, a month ago. Jeffrey, welcome back and thank you.
JEFFREY: It’s a pleasure, Robin, thank you so much. You know what? It’s interesting that you say that we see things in a similar way because—I’m not sure if I’m right about this but—I tend to think of you as more of a more traditional-classical liberal and I’m an anarchist. However, I don’t really see these views—and I hope you agree with me—as antagonistic. I think the difference is a matter of application and probably you’re not entirely convinced of the viability of a stateless society where I am. That probably sort of defines the differences, but the spirit of the views I represent, which the core order of society sort of grows out of our associations with each other, that perspective is rooted in the history of liberalism itself. I don’t see it as a radical departure, but a kind of organic and gradual outgrowth of that tradition. I don’t think it should be severed, if you know what I mean.
ROBIN: Absolutely. Well, I agree obviously with everything you said there. The reason I said I think that we see what we need to be doing in the Liberty Movement in the same way is because underlying, perhaps, our different political positions—my classical liberalism versus your anarchism—we have the same concerns about how to approach our philosophy, how to come to a good philosophy, and what indeed a good and effective philosophy is. Epistemologically then, I think perhaps we’re cut from the same cloth.
JEFFREY: Yeah, I think so. It’s interesting for me to read in the history of classical liberalism and see the themes that animate my perspective on the world. What was the key insight of liberalism as it grew up in the late middle ages, renaissance, and enlightenment? To me the theme is that there is a sort of self-ordering dynamic to society. That order is not something imposed by a leviathan but rather sort of extends out of our associations and trade—that’s the expression “laissez-faire,” right? If you let it alone, then everything will work itself out for the common good. I think that is a good way of summarizing the essential liberal insight.
ROBIN: Absolutely. Now, you ended the show last time, raising a question that sounded a little overdramatic, but then you pointed out that it certainly wasn’t: that it was actually a question that, as a practical matter, we need to answer, which is: “Do we in the Liberty Movement want to improve society or destroy it?”
ROBIN: And this came out of an hour of discussing the self-falsifying brutalist approach to Libertarianism that you so eloquently conveyed in both the interview that we did and that article that prompted these interviews. Let’s just go from there.
JEFFREY: I’m trying to think of a kind of a good way to approach this topic from a fresh perspective, and I keep going back to a beautiful book—I wonder if you’ve read it. It’s 1927 by Ludwig von Mises called Liberalism.
ROBIN: I’m glad you raised it because you mentioned it last time, and I wanted to talk about that again.
JEFFREY: He has this really—and I probably mentioned this last time too—but this last chapter. It’s really interesting. He’s looking at ways in which the sort of modern leviathan state has distorted society and distorted our outlook on life: how leviathan has created social divisions and made us all annoyed with each other. He actually has a phrase for it; he says that the leviathan has encouraged warfare sociology—I’m going somewhere with this. Here’s the deal: because there is so much at stake like imploding outcomes, there’s despotism—it lives parasitically off the rest of the social order, turning against each other in a Hunger Games sort of way. What effect does this have on liberalism? Mises answers it this way in the last chapter, he says there’s a tendency on the part of public communion in general and even in liberalism to regard itself as a particular party, as a kind of an interest group that favors its interests over somebody else’s interests. And he says that this is very wrong. This is a wrong turn for liberalism. In other words, classical liberalism or my more radical Libertarianism shouldn’t regard itself as a special interest with a particular slate of demands that come at the expense of somebody else’s demands. He says that liberalism has no party; it has no songs or uniforms, no sort of list of demands that it wants for itself, that liberalism is the only political outlook that actually seeks the general good of everyone. It seeks the common wellbeing of all peoples and all places.
ROBIN: Now surely though, my friends on the left would say that they’re trying to do that, but they’re trying to use the state as a tool in so doing, were they not?
JEFFREY: Yeah, so this is the problem with the left, right? It’s not so much that their ideals are wrong—although they often are—what’s really wrong about the left is the means that they use to achieve their ideals, and their means are violent. They always have to resort to the state, meaning aggression on people’s lives and property. They never really want to talk about this, or recognize it, or even admit it. But if you’re going to the state to ask them—the state apparatus—to achieve your ideals, you’re essentially favoring rapping up the use of violence in society and coercion and regimentation. I was just reading this recently—some late nineteenth century classical liberal was talking about the socialists at the time—not the radical Marxists but sort of the more civilized socialists of the U.S. and England—that the problem wasn’t especially with the ideals but the means by which they sought to achieve them. I would say that this is the core problem with the left more than anything else. There is a tremendous confusion that bled into the left space at some point in the nineteenth century—I’m not sure entirely when this happened—it came full flower in the progressive era and the New Deal. But just a kind of nonchalant willingness to resort to that political machinery in order to sort of make society conform.
ROBIN: Now, we’re going in to a break in just about, I don’t know, 20 seconds, so I want to just throw out this question that we can answer in the next segment: Are we in some way not forced to form ourselves into things like parties, a kind of broad interest group, just by virtue of the fact that those who oppose our approach are so formed, and they are so in a democracy?
JEFFREY: That is a brilliant question, Robin—thank you.
ROBIN: We’ll go into the break and we’ll discuss when we come back.
ROBIN: Welcome back to Blue Republican Radio. When we went into the break, I was asking Jeffrey a question. Even though liberalism—classical liberalism—doesn’t seek to operate through a party or to form an interest group that fights against other interest groups, are we not—just as a practical matter—in some way forced to do so? Because we operate in a context where such groups do move the political dial and we need to move the political dial, so there’s a kind of tension between the fact—and I actually talk about this when I introduce classical liberalism to some of my student groups. For me, what’s compelling about classical liberalism is that it actually isn’t a political philosophy. It’s almost an apolitical philosophy, or a meta-political philosophy. You kind of don’t actually have to believe in anything except your immediate experience of liberty—and that can inform your approach to politics in a completely general sense. It doesn’t in any way cause you to want to hold tight to an institutionalized party with a certain name, but here we are—pragmatically. There’s obviously some benefit to identifying oneself into political groupings and operating with the benefits of so doing in a democracy—when it is a democracy we’re trying to influence. What do you think about that, Jeffrey?
JEFFREY: I think that it is inevitable. Of course, it’s never going to go away. I would say that there are two big problems with political activism. One is that tends to not be as practical as advertised. Quite often it just doesn’t work; it hasn’t really worked for a better part of a hundred years. We saw how it worked in the eighteenth century and nineteenth century to some extent, but it’s been a long while since it truly worked well for the liberal cause. There are some exceptions that I can name—maybe the repeal of prohibition, some other issues that have led to the liberalization from the top-down through politics, but it’s pretty rare. The other problem I really have with it—and this worries me very much—is it quite often leads to despair. People get really, really excited about politics; back their man; throw themselves into it; give money; become passionate about it, almost with a level of religious fervor. And then they find that their man loses, or their man gets elected and betrays them or something happens to demoralize them and then they think, “This whole political thing is just a complete waste of my life;” and they go away through despair. That worries me more than anything. I would say that if you’re going to get in to politics, then do so with your eyes wide open to the realities you’re confronting—without naivety, really. I think it is actually extremely important, with a real wisdom, that you certainly aren’t going to win the whole thing—you might not win anything at all. In fact, the most you might be able to hope from political activity is to prevent the system from becoming worse than it is as fast as it might otherwise have, which is pretty slim pickings as far as victories go.
ROBIN: Okay, but that’s not to deny that historically we have seen—going back a thousand years—a trend in the right direction, let’s say, in the Anglo tradition.
JEFFREY: Yeah, I know. There was a gigantic liberal revolution at some point that sort of swept the world, and as many books as I’ve read about this topic, it’s still the cause-and-effect that is unclear. If we could repeat that experience, it’d be a lovely thing. I don’t think it’s repeatable though; I think we have to find new and creative ways. To me, the most freeing thing that we can do for the world right now is be creative and innovative from a technological point of view. That doesn’t mean reforming the system from the top, but rather sort of building it from within and out, making new institutions. I just reread Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, and I think everyone should just reread this every few years. If you haven’t read it, it’s just absolutely brilliant, but he talks about how the Americans claimed their liberty. It wasn’t through revolution, it wasn’t as if there was despotism, then there was a violent revolution and then we got liberty. That wasn’t it at all. He talks about the building of liberty all throughout the colonial period. That it sort of already existed. Very robustly, it was embedded in the culture, embedded in the institutions. It was everywhere! It was part of the practical reality of people’s lives. Then, the Declaration of Independence and the subsequent Revolution of the United States comes about because of an intolerance towards impositions. So people were claiming and securing what they already believed that they had and that they had a right to. That’s a different kind of conception of how liberty is obtained.
ROBIN: Jeffrey, this is music to my ears! This is what I go around saying to my American friends! I come from Britain. I come from where the history comes from: I come from where the liberty comes from! It’s really important to understand, I think, that the so-called American Revolution as you’ve just said—you’ve explicitly said—they didn’t think that they were being revolutionaries. In a sense they were conservative—they were conserving their birthright. It was already in the culture.
JEFFREY: That’s it!
ROBIN: Which goes back to your earlier point, I think. You said that political activism can be so very disappointing, but I think that’s because if that’s where you—as it were—exert your force, you’re exerting your force on the tail rather than the dog. The dog is in the culture, and that wags the political tail. The politics always follows what is mainstreamed, normalized in the culture.
JEFFREY: That’s a very important insight. That’s gigantic! If we think that politics is the first front that we should face—the thing that we should primarily and even exclusively dedicated to through some sort of ramped up hysteria—I think we’re going to fail.
ROBIN: Absolutely. I think history shows that quite clearly.
JEFFREY: It does. Again, if we go back to Tocqueville here—he describes in such detail the way liberty was embedded in institutions and in peoples. It’s very interesting. He talks even about—because I guess in his nineteenth century world there was an impression that the American Puritans were an intolerant, sort of Taliban-ish force (in modern terms)—but he actually marshals a tremendous amount of evidence from the sermons that you hear, even from the most severe Puritan ministers that were basically Lockean in their outlook. It was a beautiful thing that the love of liberty was so pervasive that it took many different forms all throughout American society, and there’s a beautiful quote he has somewhere in Democracy in America where he says something like, “I would completely oppose the imposition of only one form of liberty all over the world.”
ROBIN: There you go, and that’s what the brutalists…
JEFFREY: There should be many, many different expressions of liberty based on time, culture, and people. He’s a very interesting guy because he’s sort of an aristocratic libertarian in a way, and not an anarchist in any sense, but we have so much to learn from him. There’s not an imperialistic liberalism about him at all, or an imperialistic libertarianism, or a top-down central plan—a “we know what’s right for society” kind of approach. He really believes that liberty grows out of the embedded experience and belief structure of a people and a particular time and place. Anyway, I think all of this matters for us now. This is not just a history lesson. It really matters for what we’re doing today.
ROBIN: Yes. You talked about these ideas, pre-revolution for example, being pervasive in the culture. We can cause these ideas to become pervasive in an incremental way, such that when tyranny strikes (as it kind of is now in this moment of American history), what is in the culture will inform the reaction. It can make the reaction against tyranny one from liberty. I think that is how liberty has stepped up throughout history: political overreach into the culture occurs; there’s something good already in the culture; people sense that something they already have is being taken away by tyranny, and then they react.
JEFFREY: That’s right. The culture builds real institutions, real relationships and communities.
ROBIN: We’ll talk about that when we come back from the break, Jeffrey.
ROBIN: So when we went into the break there, Jeffrey, you made the point—a very important point—that culture builds real institutions and communities, things that—if I can use your word [from our earlier interview] again—brutalist Libertarians don’t spend any time talking about. I think that may indeed make us, as a group of Libertarians, appear alien to those who are just living in mainstream culture.
JEFFREY: It is certainly right. Here’s the thing: what I described as “brutalistic Libertarianism” is a form of Libertarianism, and I don’t want to take that away from them. My real hope is not so much to condemn but to elevate, you know? And to draw attention that it really is about more than just your rights to do what you want. It’s about more than just the freedom to have no social graces—which I certainly would argue for. That’s okay.
ROBIN: Do you actually mean that literally, Jeffrey? Do actual mean that Libertarianism is about more than those things, or do you mean that life is about more than those things?
JEFFREY: Here’s the thing—and I don’t want to get caught up in definitions like “what is Libertarianism?”—I mean liberty and life. Libertarianism is not much good to us unless it can point to a larger, more beautiful result of a flourishing human life under conditions of liberty. I think we need to broaden our minds and look at that possibility. One reason I think that brutalism exists is because don’t believe that liberty can exist anymore. People are despairing as a result of the leviathan state: they think, “I’m never going to be able to exercise my rights really; we’re never going to get a free society, so I might as well just take what I can get right now.” I think that is a kind of unidealistic way to look at it. It’s inconsistent with the dreams and the longings of the old liberal tradition, which really sought the best not just for oneself, but for one’s community and for the whole world.
ROBIN: Here’s a question, then, that this raises for me: does the liberal tradition itself—or indeed Libertarianism as we currently understand it—provide the means, the metrics, the paradigm to actually determine what is the good life, what is more beautiful, what is better? Or is that a completely different project that falls outside whatever it is that we do as liberals politically—classical liberals politically? That we’re going to do not because our philosophy necessitates it, but if we don’t, we’re just not going to get anybody else to like us? Which of those is it?
JEFFREY: I like to go back to Hayek on this. Hayek thought the most important agenda was to create to a space of choice, human volition, and freedom for institutions to develop, and develop the tolerance for a wide diversity of those institutions. That was the essence of the liberal project more than anything else. It wasn’t to achieve certain designed and rationalistic ends; it was to create a space and a template—a sort of civilizational template—to allow the full, multifarious flourishing of the best of human life in every way you can imagine that. In Law, Legislation, and Liberty, he actually uses the words, “the good society,” which was an interesting phrase for him to use because he’s writing—probably at this point—8 to 10 years after Lyndon Johnson imposed what he called the good society, which was just a bunch of welfare programs actually. Hayek sought to take back that term for the liberal cause. A good society is not something you impose through legislation, transfer programs, and redistributions. It is something that emerges out of the decentralized choices of individuals where they are in their time and in their place, doing what is in the best interest of themselves and others in a cooperative way. That’s what builds a good society. I just think that is a beautiful image.
ROBIN: Definitely. Some pure Libertarians would say, though, that our responsibility as Libertarians is just to make sure that politically that’s allowed, and that we don’t have to care too much about what society then does with that freedom. But I think you would say—and correct me again if I’m wrong—that some institutions, some choices taken with freedom are better than others, and make for better lives. Is it important that we, as classical liberals or Libertarians—even anarchists—have anything to say about that even as a political matter?
JEFFREY: I would say that there is a really interesting give-and-take relationship between freedom and the longing for the higher angels of our nature. There’s an inter-relationship between these two things: the larger the state grows, the worse we become as people; and then the worse we become as people, the larger the state grows. I think the reverse relationship works there too. It’s like, if we can get busy building our own forms of freedom that are based in benevolence, cooperation, creativity, and love, we will become less dependent on centralized forms of impositions and leviathan state control.
ROBIN: Thank you for using the word, “love.” I’ve been trying to introduce the word, “love,” into politics since I started on this. One of the ways I understand liberty is that it is the political realization of love because love says “as you wish.” To your loved one you say, “As you wish;” you want for him or her what he or she wants for him or herself. A liberal politics does the same thing politically.
JEFFREY: I think that’s right. Robin, all beautiful things in the world extend from love. For me, love is the great creative force; it is the thing that gives birth to new life. It’s a creative force in the sense that it takes the existing substance that’s around us, merges it and mixes it together and creates something new, surprising, beautiful, exhilarating—and it is the reason we wake up. It is the reason we have hope. It’s the reason we look forward to tomorrow, so we can discover new, wonderful things—all of which extend out of love. Without love, all of history is just data: it’s boring; it’s not creative. A civilization of love is a prosperous, flourishing place. I think it’s a beautiful word. I agree that there’s a political economy of love.
ROBIN: “Political economy of love.” Yeah, wow! Here’s a thought then, which speaks to your brutalism idea and my purism or orthodoxy idea. I don’t think anybody would ever make, or has made—I might be wrong—a serious attempt to systematize love. To actually write it down what it entails—whatever the axioms of love are and then consequences. Love is necessarily more fluid, more amorphous. I can’t remember who said it, but I am reminded of that line: “If the soul speaks, then alas, it is not the soul that speaks.” It can’t be what’s ultimate. Ultimate reality can’t be spoken. If that’s true—if love is the bottom line—then isn’t that the denial of all attempts to dogmatize, or even, frankly, at the bottom line, systematize liberty? Define it even?
JEFFREY: I think that once you feel like you’ve understood the whole of it, you probably haven’t understood its most important thing. It’s a mystery. Why do we say the word, “love,” with such tenderness? Why do we always have a sense of awe when we just say that word? I think the reason is that—there are several reasons—it’s ultimately mysterious, we really can’t take it apart, we can’t fully understand it. Another reason, too, is that it’s very fragile. When it appears before us, when we possess it, when we hold it, when we feel it—we should treasure it, guard it, and protect it because it can shatter so quickly, and in so many ways, I would say that the state (in the 20th century in particular) has shattered our capacity to love. The death, the violence, the imposition, the regimentation, marching around in lockstep to the dictators and the plan…
ROBIN: And by, indeed, taking over most of those human transactions that come out of love—that we, out of love, perform for and on each other. The state has taken them over and eliminated our space to actually realize our love—to be loving towards each other.
JEFFREY: That’s true and really gets us back to the core reason that we wanted to speak, that has to do with this issue of brutalism versus humanitarianism as I conceive it. I really think that it’s extremely important for classical liberals, libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, left libertarians—I don’t care what you call us—people who favor the cause of human liberty—to not just hate. There’s a just hate that we have for terrible things in the world, but that doesn’t get us all the way. I would like to find ways for us to fall in love with the idea of human liberty, and for that to be our animating driving force. That’s not to say that we have a particular agenda that “I know the answers,” and, “Here’s what we should do;” but I do think that if you’re driven by a love for liberty—really—then you start to get creative. Then you can have a benevolent spirit; then we can have civil discussions; then we can have lively, robust, lasting institutions that can build the kind of society that we all long for.
ROBIN: Perhaps we can even go one step further—it’s not just about falling in love with liberty, it’s about using liberty to fall in love with each other, isn’t it?
JEFFREY: That is such a lovely way to put it. I agree with that. In any case, it’s a pre-condition. It’s something that we shouldn’t forget about. We’re not just about fists up in the air—that’s not enough. Sometimes that’s necessary, right? These days there are so many horrors in the world, but you can’t go to bed every day with hate in your heart. That’s just not going to get us from here to there.
ROBIN: Even for the statists.
JEFFREY: Even for the state.
ROBIN: For those who would use force.
JEFFREY: It’s fine to have a passion for justice—I think we all feel that. But the question is: what’s the next step? What are the ideals that we’re seeking? What are we being called to achieve—not just to oppose but to build? I think it’s good for everyone who is liberty-minded to do an examination of conscience in that sense. Like in my case—gosh, Robin, it’s a little bit autobiographical but—I fell in love with the idea of innovation, creativity, cooperation, and exchange. Just the magic that’s associated with the capacity of human beings to get along and work out their problems for themselves. When this started happening to me, it gave me a really different outlook on life. It is very fun now for me to enter into social spaces and observe what’s going on. I’m thrilled; I’m thrilled by so many things that I’m part of. Just the other day—I was getting off the plane—I kind of watched very carefully at the process of deplaning, how people get out and get their luggage from the luggage racks, move in front of each other, defer to those who are disabled, let those who have connecting flights get ahead of them, look down upon those who cut in line. It lasted only 10–15 minutes, and I’m sitting there in my chair, watching this extremely complicated social structure emerge out of this microcosm in just a matter of minutes. I found it just magical and marvelous to observe the capacity of human beings to organize themselves imperfectly but beautifully—even in the absence of stated rules or statutory rules. The rules emerged out of etiquette and manners, and there was like a court in operation at the same time out of a complete diversity of people from everywhere, who had never met each other before. It all happened in the course of minutes, it took place over 10–15 minutes, and then it was over. If you can look at a scene like that and say, “This is beautiful. This is magic. This is lovely. This is how liberty can work.” I think that’s a great way to look at our project, really. We want a world which that level of spontaneity and informal organization of humanity takes place with compassion, love, and mutual understanding.
ROBIN: Liberty as a means to allow people and to encourage people to express their higher selves. Higher selves that, by the way, they can access without having any political ideas at all—just by virtue of their humanity.
JEFFREY: That’s exactly it, Robin. Don’t you think…? I’ve begun to realize recently that we have a slightly exaggerated attachment to this idea that there should be some sort of universal political ideology held by everybody that which so happens to be ours. I don’t actually believe that really. If we have the right kind of institutions, it shouldn’t be necessary to “convert” everyone to every aspect of our belief system.
ROBIN: What we’re arguing for here, I think, is essentially a very optimistic—and I would say, true and spiritually accurate—understanding of what a human being is. In a way, if you’re Christian, you might say we’re made in God’s image. I would probably prefer to say that we all participate in the divine, we all manifest the divine—whatever way you want to put it. It is a very positive view of humanity that has been borne out by what people do when they are given the kind of liberty we’re talking about. I see now, Jeffrey, that we’re going in to another break, so we will carry on when we come back.
ROBIN: This has been a very moving hour for me in discussion with Jeffrey Tucker. Jeffrey, in the interview we did before—the first one we did—you said the “purpose of liberty is to serve real people in their real lives.” The brutalist paradigm had a very different purpose—if any at all—right?
JEFFREY: I didn’t understand when I wrote my first article; I just assumed that brutalism was made up like any other theory, like, “Oh, to hell with beauty, to hell with accoutrements, to hell with loveliness.” Brutalists go, “Here’s your damn building.” That’s not actually true. What happened to the brutalist school of architecture grew out immediately of the World War II experience, which was shocking to all of the artists and creators in the world. So you’ve got the bombing of Dresden; London’s being aerial bombed; you’ve got Nagasaki and Hiroshima; you’ve got governments’ destroying major monuments of civilization all over the world, so one school of architecture said, “You know what? To hell with it.” If you think that civilization and beauty are that dispensable that you just push a button from the air to smash it up to smithereens, we’re not going to build it—as kind of a protest. “Here’s your damn building. It’s not beautiful; it’s ghastly. It’s just purely functional—destroy it if you want. No great loss.” Do you see? In other words, the brutalist architecture school represented a kind of nihilism or absence of hope completely. It was a despairing worldview that they adopted, and I think the ideological brutalism is in the same sort of cap. It’s a tendency to look around the world and say, “There’s no hope; there’s no chance for beauty; there’s no chance we’re doing anything good at all, so let’s just grab the minimum-most that we can, run with it, assert it, and shove it down the world’s throat.” There’s an analogy there. What this story, to me, about the origin of brutalism does: it makes you slightly, a little more sympathetic. This grows out of world experience, grows out of a historical experience that was ghastly. The brutalist architectural school was in a way the victims; this is what emerged.
ROBIN: Jeffrey, this is the end of the show. We’re going to have to carry on in a third, I think.
JEFFREY: I’d like to do that very much.
III. CREATIVE LIBERTARIANISM WILL CHANGE OUR SOCIETY
ROBIN KOERNER: Welcome to an exciting edition of Blue Republican Radio for the liberty-curious. A couple of the very best interviews I have ever done, in my opinion, were with the gentleman that I am interviewing today. And I’m so excited to interview him that I really don’t want to spend a lot of time introducing him. If you want his introduction, go back to either of those interviews in the archive, which you should listen to any way because they’re absolutely fantastic. They’re really quite beautiful because the gentleman I’m speaking to is really quite beautiful. I’m just going to introduce him as The Jeffrey Tucker. Jeffrey, welcome to the show! Once again, thank you for being on the show.
JEFFREY TUCKER: It’s a pleasure to be here. I’ve enjoyed the last two very much. The last interview, I vaguely remember becoming sort of emotional about something and I think it was about the topic of love. I began to kind of wax on about this and became a little bit teary actually as I began to speak to about that. You’re a good interviewer.
ROBIN: I think you and I are both deeply moved by liberty as a kind of political manifestation of love, and I think, in a way, when we’re doing politics therefore, you and I at least, are kind of doing metaphysics. We’re already getting to what we think this whole being on the planet is about. You said very eloquently that it is all about love.
JEFFREY: In the end, I’m almost certain of this. This whole idea of progress is interesting because you have to have some vision of what can be in order to have progress. If you’re just completely satisfied with what is and you don’t want to build anything more, you really rule out the idea of furthering the human project. So how do you further that? How can you have a world in which we imagine that which doesn’t yet exist and believe that we have the power to enlist our own efforts to make that world come into being? You have to have some sense of imagination. And love, I think, is the thing that gives rise to that sense of imagination. It’s what fires up the human spirit and helps us dream of things that aren’t yet true and then be crazy enough to commit our own resources, our own energies to making them come true. There’s an element of beautiful insanity about that.
ROBIN: Certainly, the very least, one might say irrationality in a non-derogatory sense. Pascal said that “The heart has its reasons that reason knows not of;” which I love. He was a mathematician, so he probably knew something of what he was talking about.
JEFFREY: Yeah. And I’m using the word, “insane,” too in the sense like Chesterton used the word in his book, Orthodoxy, where he defends “insanity,” as this thinking the implausible.
ROBIN: Oh, is there not the Blake quote, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world, but the unreasonable man insists on adapting the world to himself; therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
JEFFREY: That’s right. I think there is a swad of truth to that. You know, Robin, the more I think of the liberal tradition and our history and our heritage, the more I see this kind of strain of spiritualism in one form or another that exists within it. It’s always been part of us. I think nowadays, people tend to think of liberalism, or libertarianism as inherently atheistic and truly, there is nothing wrong with that, I think atheism has to say for it actually, but to the extent that it becomes a dogmatic philosophy that insists ONLY on the validity of what you can sense and nothing else. I think it actually undermines itself really. There is an element of spiritualism that comes with imagining things that aren’t yet true and working towards achieving them. You see this, I think, in the works of all the great liberals in history. I was going through the papers of Leonard Reid this morning (and I’m speaking to you from the Foundation for Economic Education), and there is no question in my mind that Leonard Reid was like in a very strange sense a deeply spiritual man. He saw a realm that could not be yet observed or yet touched that we’re striving towards. I would say the same is true of Adam Smith, by the way.
ROBIN: Okay. Say a little bit more on that. Why do you say that of Adam Smith? Just because he was imaginative, or so forward-thinking in what he was proposing? I think you mean a bit more than that.
JEFFREY: His whole project itself was speculative in nature in a way because he imagined the possibility of something called wealth creation could exist in this world, and he wanted to know what were the molecules made for this—what were the various things that caused wealth to come into existence. The more he studied it, the more he found himself enraptured by this. Then ultimately he reaches for this metaphor, as if by an invisible hand that these things take place.
ROBIN: Just because you mention that—do you think in any way, because this is something that concerns me, that the idea of “the invisible hand” as it were (there’s this thing we can probably give a name to) has made it in some ways more difficult for people to understand that the free market is purely nothing more than the free operations of free individuals making free transactions for mutual interest? That you actually don’t need more than that, and if you pause it, you need more than that, you pause it in something that can be denied whereas its subjective value. The most important idea of Austrian economics for me, the most powerful idea is the idea of subjective value because it explains the emerging order—so much of the emerging order—and the improving of the lot of people that comes out of freedom and free economic activity.
JEFFREY: I see your point, but I forgive other writers who resort to those kinds of metaphors because I think it’s something, like, it’s evidence of being awestruck. I think we all feel this when we drive in to big cities and go: “[gasps] Oh, where did this come from?” I feel that way when I go in to grocery stores, I’m like: “[gasps] This is amazing!” Yeah, you might “understand” the technicalities of how this bag of tater tots went from the potato farm—you can map it all out maybe—but still there’s just something beautifully awesome about it. I think if you understand the market properly, then you understand that you can’t understand it. [laughs] That’s an exciting revelation.
ROBIN: Now, hold on. That’s very interesting. I’m saying to be understood properly, it should be understood simply as each step along the way, mutual benefit is being gained and this is why the parties enter into trade and transaction. And you’re saying, I think, you’re kind of denying that. In fact, you’re saying the opposite. What do you mean when you say “it can’t be understood”?
JEFFREY: I think we don’t have access to the fullness of every micro-decision that goes into making…
ROBIN: I see what you mean.
JEFFREY: The whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. We can’t even understand all the parts, but even if we could, there’s still something else that’s emergent out of that. And you can reduce that to the smallest exchange. When I buy a cup of coffee downstairs from the merchant, there is something beautiful about the fact that we’ve made in the technical sense a direct exchange of physical property. I’ve given money, they’ve given me coffee. But there is still a third thing that emerges, which is like this higher value. This increase of wealth that’s not tactile, but still exists. You know, Robin, I think it’s extremely important for us to acknowledge this because even some of the greatest philosophers have missed this point. I spent a lot of time over the past three days with Aristotle.
ROBIN: How is he? [laughs]
JEFFREY: Well, he’s very interesting and very cool. But he missed this point. He couldn’t understand how the shuffling of property from me to you and you to me back again, or add a third person, add a fifth person, add the 5000th person. He doesn’t understand how it becomes something greater than what you just see. It’s lost on him. It seems to him just like a bunch of shuffling around, but actually we understand that it’s more than that.
ROBIN: Thanks, Jeffrey. We’re going into the break; we’ll be back soon.
ROBIN: This is Robin Koerner, the original Blue Republican, speaking to THE Jeffrey Tucker. And we’ve already hit Adam Smith, and we’ve already hit Aristotle because I’m talking to Jeffrey Tucker, and he knows a lot of stuff.
JEFFREY: I just spend a lot of time reading silly books.
ROBIN: That’s how you know a lot of stuff! [laughs]
JEFFREY: Well, I get obsessed with things, especially these days—you can download these books in two seconds. It’s beautiful.
ROBIN: Yes. It’s absolutely beautiful! I want to go back a large point you made earlier in the interview that also relates to our earlier interviews: the importance of creativity, of imagination, of considering of what we may be and what we may build. I want to ask you—and perhaps this also relates to the brutalism article that we also discussed—we talked about the tendency of many in the Libertarian movement to see in their philosophy something that was essentially a denying, negative, destructive. That as long as we put freedom in place, what people want to do with it, how they pursue the good life within that frame, that’s kind of all up to them—we don’t have to have anything to say about it. And I agree with you that considering the positive and possible is essential. I think it is essential for the success for the acceptance of our libertarianism, of the importance of liberty, politically. We’ve got to say “It can be better and better can look like this.” Do we need to do that more, and how do we effectively do it when we have to, as it were,—at least in people’s minds—raise some of the institutions that have crowded out our compassion and indeed undermined our creative imagination precisely because we have built a highly statist social democratic society? Do we need to do it, and how do we do it effectively to change political discourse?
JEFFREY: I just adore your questions, and they give rise to such thoughts. Let me say something that I kind of wish I had said in my brutalism article that I’ve since discovered. I think this is a very important point, and I’m very curious what your reaction to it is. I can’t even remember where I read it—it was just a few weeks ago. But some article I read distinguished (it was an article on free speech) between the right to do something—the exercise of your rights—which can encompass a full range of human motivation and behavior. Some of which is egregious and wildly objectionable—even if non-aggressive—so the distinction between the exercise of one’s rights and the defense of human rights generally. Do you see what I mean? For example, we might defend the right of a person to engage in terrible discrimination, racial bias, religious hate—whatever—because it is consistent with the exercise of freedom, but the defense of freedom generally must observe that society contains, within itself, many mechanisms that push us more towards better behavior, that a free society tends to—if it’s working properly—encourage: civility, manners, decorum, generosity, all these things that are not required, of course, but are nonetheless encouraged and rewarded in the context of freedom. It would be an oversight not to observe this and speak about it very frankly because to live a civilized, socially-conscious life is necessary something that comes with freedom. It’s not something that’s required, but is something that institutions of liberty that are always pushing us towards. I think liberty makes us better people, and in order to obtain liberty, it’s good to sort of get ahead of the curve and be better people. That helps encourage the institutions of a free society. But I thought this was a great distinction between the defense of liberty on the one hand, and the exercise of liberty on the other. I was impressed by that. Well, I get a lot of criticisms as a result of my article which I very severely condemned antisocial behavior even insofar as its non-aggressive. People said, “That’s not Libertarian.” You go in outside the non-aggression principle, the so-called “NAP.” You’re advocating a thick form of Libertarianism, and I never quite developed a good answer to that, but I think the answer is that we have to carefully distinguish between the defense of liberty (this necessarily includes a large historical social framework and moral framework) from the exercise of liberty (which, given human rights and everything, can or cannot include all those considerations). I wish I had had that distinction at hand in the past, so I share that with you know just because I think it’s important.
ROBIN: Let me, in that regard, because I’ve got a follow-up to this. If I say to somebody in a Facebook conversation, “O, you’re an idiot who hates freedom blah blah blah…because I don’t like what they’re saying politically;” and I put some nasty label on you, I put you down, I question your intention, your intelligence, whatever: is that not aggressive? Is that aggressive?
JEFFREY: Well, in common parlance, it is.
ROBIN: Right. Does that tell something, as Libertarians, that we need to be thinking about? The fact that in common use of the word, “aggression,” which is the one meaningful word in the one principle that many Libertarians insist on that it is has a meaning to nearly everybody that many of us don’t seem to act upon.
JEFFREY: I totally agree with you. We are very likely in common parlance to use the word, “aggression,” not in the way Libertarians mean that term. If I as Head of Digital Development at the Foundation for Economic Education decide to engage in an aggressive advertising campaign, does that mean I’m going around putting guns in people’s hands, or that I’m stealing their stuff? No, it means that I’m acting with a pressured sense of volition, a heightened sense of focus. That’s what aggression means in the real world. So yeah, I agree with you—Libertarians need to be very aware that the definition that we want to use of this term is not, in fact, the definition used broadly. That’s not the way that people generally use the word, “aggression.” There’s a lot to unpack here.
ROBIN: Indeed. And I think because of that, when we come aggressively at people with our non-aggression principle, they just look at us and go: “What a hypocrite!” [laughs]
JEFFREY: I totally agree with you. I totally agree with you. I’m not opposed to the non-aggression principle, obviously—if rightly understood—but we are fooling ourselves, engaged in massive fantasy if we think that somehow we can just plaster “NAP” on a bumper sticker and cause it to convince the world to embrace human liberty. That is just stupid; it’s just not true. [laughs]
ROBIN: Right. And American Libertarians have been proving that for decades, you know? We’ve got the data in on that. I’m noticing that we’ve only got a minute left in this segment, but I just want to say to you, in response to that I actually came to—I think what you’re saying—whilst writing an article that I call “Liberty is the Politics of Love,” in which I said, “Look, if liberty is a political system that says ‘as you wish;’” which is what you say to people you love, right? It’s allowing everybody to choose themselves what they want for themselves and celebrating that and then there are certain dispositions that go with it. There is a disposition of tolerance. There is a disposition of humility, and I can’t remember what my third one was, but I think it was something like open-mindedness. Basically, pragmatism where you’re concerned with actual outcomes rather than ideology and orthodoxy. When I perceive liberty in that way, as a politics of love, those dispositions become almost included, they become almost essential to the practice of liberty. And I see we’re going into the break, we’ll talk about it when we get back.
ROBIN: This is Robin Koerner, the original Blue Republican, speaking to the Jeffrey Tucker, and, as always, being completely delighted by the experience. Jeffrey, just going into the break there—sorry it was all a bit of a hurry—I kind of went through my understanding, or one understanding, of liberty as a political system that tries to manifest love, which is I know is a concept that drives you and drives me as well. And from that, I draw certain dispositions that promoters of liberty, that believers in liberty have to have that you pre-empted in the last segment and you spoke about such as humility and tolerance, etc., etc. To what extent do you think we need for philosophical consistency and for practical effectiveness, to what extent do we need to be explicit in promoting and talking about those kinds of things? Those things that maybe are not within a kind of orthodox Libertarian political framework but are in any understanding of humanity and morality and indeed—to use the word that you used to me when I met you in DC a few months ago—decency.
JEFFREY: I like the way you put this. What I would like to see is the emergence of, what I might call, “normal Libertarianism.” So our language taps in to the bourgeois spirit, so that we can make sense when we speak about our ideology, our philosophical position to regular people and their regular life experience. If we have too much of a rarefied vocabulary, an ideological position that seems inconsistent with the way people normally live their lives, I don’t think we’re going to make progress. We need to learn… And I’m a radical—as you know—I’m an anarchist. I have a very far flung view of how the world could actually work, but I’m also very aware that unless I can make sense of this philosophical position, in light of people’s regular lives, I don’t think we can ever make any progress whatsoever. We have to be able to speak in terms that are truly bourgeois.
ROBIN: Can you impact that a little bit? When you say that, what do you mean exactly?
JEFFREY: Well, I mean that we should be able to make sense in light of people’s normal daily experience of their lives. Rather than coming across as some sort of far flung fanatics (we don’t want to reconstruct human nature), I think we need to recognize that the stuff that we’re working with is all around us—whether it’s retail shops, or daily events of human life. Let me give you an example. By the way—Robin, I’m sure you do this too—I used really resent when people asked me very high philosophical questions on Twitter. [laughs]
ROBIN: Enough said. [laughs]
JEFFREY: When you have 170 characters to sum up your whole position on something like human nature or property—or private property, something like that. I’ve more recently come to appreciate the challenge actually; I sort of like it. Even earlier today, somebody said: “Don’t you need a state to create and enforce property—private property?” Maybe a couple of years ago, I would have said, “I’m not going to bother with this. This is too difficult a question to just answer on Twitter.” But I thought about it, and I thought, “I’m going to accept this challenge.” So I responded to him. Specifically I said, “Do you rely on the state to secure your home and your car from an invasion? Or do you take your own initiative through the private sector—whether it’s locks, or putting a Club on your steering wheel, or whatever—to actually live, to realize your property rights?” I shrunk it down to just a number of small characters. This really stunned him to think like this, and he came back and said, “But wait, aren’t property rights in the first instance created by the state?” And I said, “Absolutely not. The state didn’t create your home, it didn’t create your car, it didn’t create any of the things you call yours. You call them yours as a matter of drawing upon a social consensus essentially—the existence of private property.” My point in telling this story is just to say that I always want to try my best to tap into people’s daily experience of normal life to illustrate the beauty of human liberty. If we can’t do that, if we always have to shove at people a gigantic library of 1000-page treatises, I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere. We’ve got to figure out a way to communicate the ideas of liberty to people from the experience of their daily lives, or else I don’t think we have much hope.
ROBIN: Do you think we, as a movement, are getting better at that? And whether we are or not, how do we get better at it?
JEFFREY: I think we are getting better at this. You know, Robin, I think you and I both have spent a lot of time reflecting on the history of the liberal idea, right?
JEFFREY: I think you and I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the history of the liberal idea, wondering: “Did it go wrong? When did it go wrong?” I’ve recently been playing around with the possibility—back in the 1940s and the 1950s, we had a series of very big thinkers around us who spoke about human liberty in light of things like ethics, aesthetics, philosophy, culture, spirituality, and also politics. Something happened—I’m speculating here—I wonder if something happened between the 1940s and the 1950s. And leaping forward to the 1970s, where Libertarianism became reduced to a purely political position, purely a matter of the relationship between the state and the individual and excluding every other consideration. If I’m right about that, I think that took a very bad turn.
ROBIN: If I’m understanding you, Jeffrey, you’re speculating that up until that time, let’s say, classical liberalism did speak to the possible, did speak to those parts of humanity that weren’t obviously political and then it stopped doing that and we’ve suffered for it.
JEFFREY: I’m almost certain of this actually.
JEFFREY: As I say, I’m just playing around with this possibility, and I’m not sure why that turn of events took place—maybe it was the establishment of the Libertarian Party in the U.S. This sort of strange reductionism took hold of the liberty world. I think it is regrettable, so I would like to see us recapture this larger aesthetic of liberty that was very much alive in 1940s in the works of Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Patterson, Hayek, and Ayn Rand. Each, in their own, spoke to the larger human project.
ROBIN: By basically imagining from liberty and imagining in whichever directions they as in individual human beings imagined?
JEFFREY: Right. They didn’t limit themselves to a purely political ideology. They wanted to speak to a larger speculative sense of the meaning of life itself.
JEFFREY: As a result, they continued to have this big influence, but by the 1970s, the form of Libertarianism that became common was purely like a highly politicized idea. What the state should do and shouldn’t do. I think that that’s a truncation and almost an artificial rendering of what classical liberalism has sought to achieve.
ROBIN: Yeah. That’s fascinating! Again, there’s a topic for another entire interview. What comes to my mind as you say that—and I don’t know if this is relevant at all, but it’s what first comes to my mind: In Britain after the Second World War, this historic rejection of Churchill’s conservative party or Labor Party—this surprised everybody—ran on a welfarist platform. The idea that “we fought this war, we fought against tyranny, we paid a huge price, now it’s up to us to implement a big idea that’s worthy of the price” paid in the Second World War—price against the Nazis. Certainly in Britain, the only idea that kind could be big enough, that caught the imagination was the welfare state—very, very large—with the National Health Service, etc., etc. I don’t mean the welfare state literally started the day after the Second World War, but much of it did in England. That perhaps in a way, similar to FDR and the New Deal, but maybe even more so might have changed the landscape inasmuch you’re talking about this change in Libertarianism. Maybe it was a response, maybe it was caught up—a space change—I don’t know.
JEFFREY: That’s really interesting. Yes, I think in a way the welfarist mentality, or the central planning mentality in the U.S. began to die out after the Second World War. There was a flurry of books that came out in the 1940s and mid-1940s: God of the Machine, Discovery of Freedom, Road to Serfdom, Omnipotent Government, The Fountainhead. All of these books were about creating a big vision of the possibilities of humankind, to build beautiful worlds and beautiful lives within the context of freedom. Then something weird happened. The type of Libertarianism that emerges in the 1970s tries to get rid of these big views and just becomes purely a matter of politics, campaigning, and the relationship between the individual and the state. Everything else is gone. I think that was a really unfortunate turn of events. You asked about what’s going on now in the Libertarian world, and there’s no question in my mind that we’re beginning to recapture this older view and push Libertarianism beyond just this really wild obsession with the state as the one subject.
ROBIN: You talked about a Libertarian aesthetic. This project though, this return, would presumably develop multiple Libertarian aesthetics. If we are going in that direction—why now? Why is coming good again?
JEFFREY: Robin, I think it’s just simply because we reflect on our own failures, and I think the current generation is fed up with losing and not seeing the realization of our dreams. There’s that. Like our political failures have humbled us. That’s one thing. The second thing is that in very practical ways we are seeing the rebirth of liberty in our times in ways we wouldn’t have expected through entrepreneurship, through the building of these large cultural institutions, through alternative educational institutions, the application economy, beautiful discoveries in the world of technology and medicine. And we are building this new world, but it’s not coming because we’ve persuaded somehow the politicians at the top to change society, but because we’ve staked out our own new territory that’s very broad, very vast, and inclusive. I would say that we’re seeing the evidence all around us of the failure of 1970s’-style Libertarianism and success of a kind of a broader, more entrepreneurially and culturally smart form of Libertarianism.
ROBIN: So now then those who advocate Libertarianism as a philosophy, how do we begin to include that into a philosophy? We’ve got to change our discussion—how?
JEFFREY: I think one thing, Robin, is that we do need to revisit our broader history. Reading Adam Smith is genius. It’s a wonderful thing—it’s so exciting. I was talking about Aristotle’s politics—it’s a wonderful thing to read that—and revisiting I would say even some of the novels and aesthetics of Rand—it’s very interesting. There’s many aspects of Rand obviously I don’t like, but we need to broaden our sense of who we are backwards in history. Let me just say that we underestimate the power of ideas here. It’s such a wonderful opportunity we all have to, in a couple of seconds, download a book like The Theory of Moral Sentiments and be able enter in to the 18th century, crawl into the mind of this incredible thinker and see what that world was like. It’s like a combination time machine and séance all at once. How fortunate is that? That’s a beautiful thing to do. I think Libertarians need to take that task on because it broadens our historical imaginations more.
ROBIN: And just makes us more compelling because we will become so much more interesting.
JEFFREY: Yeah. And we could get interested in what Adam Smith was interested in and that’s a beautiful thing. I’m not saying that we should somehow repudiate or abandon the modern history of Libertarianism as it emerged in the 1970s and the 1980s, but I do think we need to read the liberal tradition in the biggest possible way and be more inclusive of the project of human liberty. We can find it in many places in literature, religion, politics, and human aspirations generally.
JEFFREY: We shouldn’t think of ourselves as a rarefied, weird breed.
ROBIN: We’re going in to the break, Jeffrey.
ROBIN: I’m always so inspired, and as I said before, delighted when I get to speak to Jeffrey. I hope you will come on the show for a fourth time, and I don’t know when that will be, but I hope you will cause I get so much out of this. I’m sure—I know my listeners do as well.
JEFFREY: I would like to do that too. Thank you so much, Robin. I love talking with you because we get to talk about all these big thoughts—it’s exciting and relevant.
ROBIN: Absolutely! Big thoughts but that we hope are very relevant to getting the job done on the ground and moving the culture and that’s why I kinda love this. It’s like you can dance at the different ends of the ballroom on this one. It’s fantastic! We’ve got two minutes—not even—to close out the show, so let me just ask, Jeffrey. Obviously liberty.me seems to be having a lot of success: How’s that going? What are you working on? Anything interesting coming up that the listeners can know about in the last 90-seconds?
JEFFREY: I love liberty.me because it’s very exciting to me to think that two years ago, it was just something that I imagined that might exist and now it’s become a very important part of people’s lives. That’s really exciting to me; it’s a beautiful example of creativity. I’m honored and humbled to say that I was involved in it. I’ve taken on a big project at the Foundation for Economic Education to give new life to their digital properties. This is a very important old institution; it was founded in 1946, so I’d like to see it lead the way in the 21st century in terms of delivery of information and inspiration both. I have to tell you, Robin, that I love the spirit of liberalism that pervades this place; it makes me really excited. It’s just so me, you know?
ROBIN: [laughs] There’s probably no better commendation for an institution than “It’s so Jeffrey Tucker!”
JEFFREY: I feel it every day.
ROBIN: That’s a wonderful thing to feel.
JEFFREY: No secret agendas. It’s out there where liberals were trying to make the world a freer place on behalf of ourselves and the whole of humanity. That’s just an exciting motivation. I feel that inspiration. I’m absolutely determined to build something wonderful here.
ROBIN: I love it. Jeffrey, thank you so much. This has been a real pleasure as always. If you’re listening to the show, and you’re enjoying this, and you like the spirit in which we have these discussions: please do go to bluerepublican.org, stick your name in the little email widget thingy, and get on our list. Be sure to check the archives for the other great shows, especially the former two great shows with this great man, Jeffrey Tucker. Thanks very much.
JEFFREY: You’re welcome.
IV. FAME AND FASCISM
ROBIN KOERNER: This is Blue Republican Radio with Robin Koerner, a show for the liberty-curious, and I am with my good friend in liberty for, I believe, the sixth time: the incredible Jeffrey Tucker. As always, whenever I speak to Jeffrey, I say: “Hey, guys, you have to go back through the archives and check out all the other interviews I’ve done with him,” and I will say that again this time. In fact, I just put on the Huffington Post a transcript from our second interview under the title, I think, “Liberalism, Liberty, Life and Love,” which shows you kind of the wide range that Jeffrey and I often cover when we get together, regardless of where we start. But today I thought I would just do a little more of a freeform interview with Jeffrey. Before the show, he was beginning—I don’t know quite how he got onto it—he was just telling me about, what I think it’s fair to say was the first moment he realized he was a bit of a public figure (at least in the liberty movement) as he was standing in the lobby of a large hotel in Washington, D.C. With that little intro, let me…
JEFFREY TUCKER: Really, it happened. I was in Washington. First of all, I should say that I’d been working for years sort of quietly on the internet just writing things, minding my own business, and I never had any sense nor desire for any kind of notoriety or recognition or anything else. I mean, who cares, right? You sort of stick with the thing. So I was in Washington for a different reason. I was recording a series of lectures on business cycles or something, and they said, “As long as you’re here, you should go to the ISFL conference,” and I didn’t know what that was so I said, “What is it?” And they said, “It’s a liberty conference of young people.” Great, it’s next door, so I thought, “Well, I have time and I don’t have to leave till this evening, so I’ll just hop on over there.” I went over next door and walked up to the front desk and I said, “Listen, I’m kind of off the street in a way—just a sort of a passerby—and I don’t even know if you allow people like me in, but do you have a rate for people who just show up? You know, I just heard about it and showed up.” She said, “Well let me check… it’s $60,” so I took out my checkbook and started writing a check for $60 and was really looking forward to going to these various things. At which point, somebody behind her began to talk to somebody behind her and they were obviously saying something like “Look who it is. It’s Jeffrey Tucker.” In a way, it was kind of my first public appearance. I don’t know how else to put it, and there was a widespread murmurance, followed by hysteria and grave embarrassment. And that woman who took my check never stops apologizing to me about it, as if I would be offended. It’s ridiculous, right? I found myself unable to go any sessions because there were a couple of thousand people at the conference and, I don’t know, it was just very strange for me.
ROBIN: Because you got mobbed?
JEFFREY: It was invigorating.
ROBIN: So you were there stuck in the lobby, fielding the questions of the crowds that thronged around you?
JEFFREY: That’s right. And at that moment, I realized something seems to have been going on I didn’t know anything about. I didn’t know at that point that my life would somehow change, but, Robin, it really is a substantive change that comes over you. It’s almost sometimes like an out-of-body experience: the difference between the person who’s not a public figure and somebody who is a public figure. It seems stark, but it’s like a gradient that separates them. You don’t know at what point it happens; maybe it happens gradually? I’m not sure how it works, but it definitely happens, and you find yourself in a different life situation entirely.
ROBIN: That’s interesting. Tell me a little bit about it. What are the changes? And you know, I actually have one particular question I’d like you to get to: are you an extrovert—in which case, are you might be very comfortable with the changes.
JEFFREY: No. You hear this, and I think it’s a fairly coherent definition to the difference between an introvert and an extrovert: when you’re alone, do you long to be with people? In which case, you might be an extrovert. If you’re with other people and you long to be alone, you’re probably an introvert. Well, I fall on the extreme end of introversion in that case. I’m just most content by myself, quietly working and thinking—and I could do this for an almost unhealthy amount of time. Being in public is a little bit trying on me and it’s exhausting. It pumps up my adrenaline to the point that it’s almost unhealthy. Because I do it, I throw myself into it. But you almost have to become something else. I do find it sort of taxing. It’s work. And saying that, I don’t want to make anybody feel bad. It truly is. I’m just really happy with a book and being quiet for countless hours and even days and even weeks. I mean, it’s pretty dangerous.
ROBIN: Jeffrey, unpack for me this “becoming something else”. In what respect?
JEFFREY: In the sense that for the first time—and it’s hard to make the adjustment—people talk about you as if you’re not a person. It’s like an out-of-body experience. There’s suddenly this person named Jeffrey Tucker who people talk about and say things about and offer opinions about. People feel free to render my ideas, my preferences, my life. They speak about me as if I’m not really a human being. The same way we speak about any public figure where we forget that they’re actually human beings with feelings and lives and faults and difficulties and constraints and that sort of thing. It’s hard to make that adjustment. Robin, there have been times when I have found myself reading about myself thoroughly convinced there must be some other person by that name in this world because that can’t possibly be me. You can’t believe it. I don’t mean just mean—because of course that’s there: people feel free to just flog you—but speak about you as if you’re a painting or a statute or some kind of figure out there for their entertainment and not a real human being. I’ll tell you how I’ve dealt with this sometimes, Robin. I’ll sometimes see random, passing comments about me online, offering opinions on my work, or maybe saying something really praiseworthy or something vicious, and I’ll just click—and Facebook makes this very easy—I’ll click on the name and just write the person a message and say: “Hey, why did you say that?” or “Thanks for sharing that.” You can feel it. They’re absolutely stunned.
JEFFREY: I think that they’re stunned not because, “Oh my god, Jeffrey Tucker wrote me.” It’s not that. They’re stunned to discover there’s a real human being behind this name.
ROBIN: I don’t have the celebrity status you do, but I have encountered that. I have encountered that where someone makes a comment, maybe looks at something you produce, makes some inference about you as a human being in a way that they would not speak about an actual human being that they conceive as a human being with whom they might actually communicate face to face. I mean, we see this on the internet all the time, right? Just by contacting them, which is something that only a human being can do, and you do it non-defensively, it does sometimes generate quite an extraordinary reaction actually. You’re right.
JEFFREY: It does. It’s almost 100%. I leave out wild neo-Nazis or something like that hearing this, but quite often I’ll see a person say something like strangely—how do you say?—just a little bit disparaging or personally insulting. And I’ll write the person and, Robin, I’ll say things like: “Dear Jim, I saw what you said online and it me sad. I just have to ask you, did I ever do anything to personally offend you? Because if I did, I feel like I owe you an apology and please tell me what it is.”
JEFFREY: And almost always, with very rare exceptions, they come back and say: “Listen, I am so sorry. I didn’t intend that at all. You’ve never offended me. In fact, I quite like your writings. I admire you very tremendously, and I have to offer my apologies.” This has happened many, many, many times. Just a little touch of humanity there turns the whole situation around.
ROBIN: We’ve got one minute left in this segment, Jeffrey, but has that particular experience taught you anything new about human nature that you didn’t know before you became public?
JEFFREY: Maybe. Maybe it’s something about our tendency to dehumanize people—and it runs in every single direction—we dehumanize our politicians; our politicians dehumanize us. The more we can have and maintain real human contact with each other, the more civilized we will be.
ROBIN: Absolutely. Wow. See, always an interesting conversation with Jeffrey. I’m kind of thinking we could take an hour now just starting there, but I’ve got something else in mind, which I think I want to ask you when we come back after the break. Rand Paul pulled out a couple days ago, suspended his campaign, and the question, “Which is more frightening in 2016 America: the brown shirts or the red shirts?” is the question I want to ask you when we come back after the break.
ROBIN: At the end of the last segment there, I asked Jeffrey a question that I believe is very pertinent to the state of politics today in America, but I’m just going to put things on pause because in the break, Jeffrey and I were talking and he said he does have another story to share regarding the topic of our first segment. So before we get to my question, Jeffrey, let’s hear the story.
JEFFREY: It’s just kind of funny because it all has to do with this brand identity because people somehow imagine that I somehow created this brand.
ROBIN: The brand that is Jeffrey Tucker.
JEFFREY: Right, right. It has something to do with the suit and bowtie and that sort of thing, which is not really true. I’m just dressing the way I always dress, and then it gets attached to the name and I don’t know what. Let me just say, I’ve been trying to become an ice skater as best I can. Last night was my fourth time to ice skate, and it was a disappointing night because I just wasn’t as good as the third time. History is not supposed to be that way. There’s supposed to be continual progress, right? You’re not supposed to roll back. It was a bad night for me ice skating, and I just got fed up after about an hour and a half of just stomping around on the ice looking terrible, and I went to the bar and I ordered a beer. I said, “I was just awful tonight,” and the guy said, “I’m so sorry. You just have to stick with it, but have you ever thought that perhaps you would skate better without wool, double-breasted suit and high collar on?”
ROBIN: [laughs] Oh, that’s magic.
JEFFREY: It hadn’t occurred to me before, but maybe that’s true. I don’t know. [laughs] But here’s the problem: let’s say I showed up in sweats and jeans, like every normal person. Robin, I can assure you, as soon as I do that, there would be 3 or 4 people at the public skating rink that would say, “Oh my God, Jeffrey Tucker without a bowtie. Let’s take a selfie.” So I become conscious of this.
ROBIN: That’s interesting. So now you’re almost forced to maintain the accidental brand?
JEFFREY: I wonder if that’s true. It’s maybe forced, but all I can tell you is that every time I’m out of uniform, I bump into a group of people who recognize me and are overwhelmed by it. This happened to me in Australia; it happens to me in airports. Listen, I was in a hotel once, and I was sitting there. I needed to put ice in my ice bucket. I was sitting there in my t-shirt and boxer shorts, and I thought: “I’m just going to go down the hall like any normal person, put on some slippers and go get some ice in my ice bucket…” And I thought, “You know what, as soon as I open that door, sure enough there will be somebody who recognizes me and I cannot take that risk.” You don’t want to be vain, but it’s a reality, so I suited up and on goes the collar, on goes the shirt, on goes the suit, then the tall wool socks, then the leather shoes, and I thought, “I can’t believe what I’m doing. What is wrong with me? Am I so vain that I really think that on the seventh floor of this unknown hotel, I’m going to walk outside and I only have about thirty feet to walk and get some ice that I have to do this just for that purpose because I’m so risk-averse?” I was embarrassed for myself and what’s become of me. And then sure enough, I open up the door and there were five people standing within five feet of my door, and they said, “Oh my god, Jeffrey Tucker, can we take a selfie?” And so I thought, “There you go.”
ROBIN: The soft coercion of public expectation!
JEFFREY: Something like that. Yeah. Maybe it is vanity, so I do feel like I am always in a public situation. When I walk through airports now, I will check my Twitter feed and I will see: “Jeffrey Tucker just walked by me.”
JEFFREY: Your viewers are saying, “Oh, poor you. Poor, poor you.” I know.
ROBIN: No, no, no.
JEFFREY: Big problems, right? But it is a little strange cause you begin to feel like you’re being watched wherever you are. All I can say is that it changes your life fundamentally.
ROBIN: Now, I’ve got to ask you this: The flipside of that though, I believe, especially in the culture that we live in, it means that more people are hungry for your ideas, are going to read your ideas, are going to share your ideas. Is that upside worth that price to you?
JEFFREY: Oscar Wilde said “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about,” so there is that. I don’t think it’s possible for people to… I’ve always, in my own mind, just been interested in spreading the ideas of freedom—whatever those are—and exploring that idea, and urging as much as possible people to embrace freedom and liberty as an ideal. And I’ve never cared anything about brand identity or my name or anything. But I think you’re right, Robin, these are just not separable. People tend to associate the ideas with a person, and that’s just human nature I think. Something like that. Yeah, I think it’s worth the price. Look, like I say, it’s a first-world problem. All I’m saying is: it is a change. It is a substantial change to go from living a normal life to actually being what’s called a “public figure.” It is interesting that our law even recognizes this, so that there’s a different… What’s the law when you insult somebody? Where you say something that’s untrue about somebody?
ROBIN: Libel. Okay. Yeah.
JEFFREY: They don’t tend to apply as rigorously to so-called “public figures,” so we make this distinction even in probably the common law.
JEFFREY: So there is a reality. Especially in the age of the internet, anybody can be suddenly a public figure tomorrow, and your life will change, and then cease to be a public figure the next week. These things come and go, and there’s no scientific measurement tool or anything, but it just begins to happen to you. It happens to you in ways you don’t expect. That’s my lesson.
ROBIN: You know what? We’ve got two and a half minutes of this segment, so hit us with some of the ways you don’t expect, and maybe talk a little bit about whether you actually have to take active steps to maintain privacy, or to protect privacy.
JEFFREY: I do. I do. In fact, in a weird sense it’s maybe a little bit more internal, so I do take active steps to at least maintain that zone of autonomy in my life. You have to do it deliberately actually. You have to set out and say, “This is what I’m going to offer the public, and this is what I’m going to keep for myself.” Because I can tell you, Robin, you have to keep some of that for yourself, or else you really do kind of, in a way, lose your soul, and it’s not good. It’s disorienting. Really, Robin, private life is the pith—that’s the bloodstream, that’s the soul—of a good life, of a life well-lived. It’s intimacy; it’s whispering; it’s the warmth of touch of the person you’re next to; it’s the friend you trust; it’s those extremely private moments in your life that are the reasons… that’s what gives us happiness. It’s not the crowds, really. It’s trusted friends; it’s moments of intimacy that really give you meaning, that touch you deeply, that warm your heart. Nothing can take the place of that, so guard that with everything, absolutely.
ROBIN: “Guard that” meaning maintain the space where you can continue to enjoy it unseen and unmitigated?
JEFFREY: You have to. Yeah, and remember it and appreciate it when it happens. When those moments come alive, when you can look at a human being and he’d look into your eyes—each other’s eyes—and you sense something spectacular there—trust and awareness and even love. Those are the special moments of life, and those don’t come from stages and crowds and that sort of thing.
ROBIN: What a perfect way to end our second segment. This is Blue Republican Radio—Robin Koerner speaking to Jeffrey Tucker.
ROBIN: I’m thoroughly enjoying speaking to Jeffrey Tucker. Jeffrey, I don’t know if you can remember but two segments ago, at the end of the first segment, I threw a question at you. I am very interested to know your answer. I read an article that you wrote about this issue not long ago, by the way, and that kind of prompted me to want to ask you the question. Here we are now. The political establishment… Well, you know what? I am not even going to comment; I’m just going to let you comment. Browns? Reds? What’s going on?
JEFFREY: Wow. A huge topic, right? Both of these, we could abstract ideologies that have nothing to do with what we were talking about in the last segment, which is the looking into another’s eyes, aware of the smell of their breath, and intense empathy with others, the intimacy of human connection. Reds and browns, socialism, capitalism, fascism, national greatness, war, equality. None of this has anything to do with humanity, and it’s very dangerous to talk in these terms. I’ve been trying to emphasize this over the last eight months, and I feel like Donald Trump is my benefactor in a way because he’s given me the opportunity to talk about this subject that hasn’t been talked about in about what—sixty years? About the reality of fascism as an ideology, which in fact you say which one’s more dangerous. I would say by far the Browns are more dangerous, actually. In the sense that they’re a more inauspicious threat that sneaks up on us because we’re less aware of fascism as an ideology than we are of socialism as an ideology and we inadvertently adopt it.
The Republican Party of the United States is just on the verge of embracing this kind of fascist autocrat with dopiness: “Well, he’s a good businessman; therefore, he’ll make America great.” It is just unbelievable levels of naivety here, whereas the same people who love Trump but have been warning about communism and were terrified during the Cold War and so on. I think in a strange way, the Browns are a much greater threat just simply because we’re less familiar with them and our immune systems are not prepared to deal with them.
ROBIN: What about the fact though, Jeffrey, that—to everybody else—the Red philosophy on its face seems kinder and more generous, and therefore, may be potentially more subversive? Because I think there are a lot of folks in the mainstream, all over the political map, that are just disgusted by Trump, whereas I’m not sure there’s that kind of visceral reaction of disgust towards Sanders and what he represents. Is there?
JEFFREY: I think the answer to the question really comes down to demographics; it depends on what age group you’re in and where you are in life. Apparently, Sanders is wildly popular on college campuses, but I think the reason for that, Robin, has to do with a very interesting fact. That’s within the existence of contemporary Red ideology. It preserves an element of liberalism that fascism has discarded. Really, I think it comes down to a slight affection for democracy as a methodology of decision-making and also civil liberties. Even the Reds today acknowledge a realm within which there should be free will. For example, Sanders is very careful to talk about drug legalization and say the federal government should have nothing to do with prosecuting people in the way it’s doing right now over drugs. And then, marriage equality, for example, he talks about the freedom of choice in your partner and that sort of thing. I think that resonates in a way. So I don’t think it’s the socialist aspect of Sanders that’s appealing to the young; I think it’s the aspects of contemporary socialist ideology that still, in a strange way, preserve a little element of liberalism—liberalism in a classical sense—whereas Trump-ism, or what I just call contemporary fascism, has discarded all elements of liberalism. It’s pure arbitrary power. There’s no liberalism to Trump whatsoever. It’s pure utility, pure national greatness, pure top-down rule by brilliant, heroic individuals. That’s the whole ideology, so in that sense, I get why young people are more attracted to Sanders, and I’m not sure that it’s… You said that it was generosity, but I’m not sure that’s it. Maybe you have a point, but I tend to think it’s just the perceived liberalism of Sanders that’s slightly more appealing to the young voters. They’re more drawn to Sanders than Trump for that reason.
ROBIN: Well, that makes sense. Obviously, my reference to the Browns and reference to the Brown shirts was a reference to fascism. Are we, though, missing something important by giving Trump anything as coherent as that “______ism” anyway? I mean, are we really dealing with authoritarianism? I mean, we don’t even have a coherent political philosophy here, do we?
JEFFREY: Robin, I really do think that there’s more to it than that.
JEFFREY: It really comes down to national self-sufficiency. That was always the predominant theme with fascism from the 1930s. It’s the nation as a community and that which is outside of the nation state as being the scapegoat. And so national self-sufficiency is a central principle, so Trump led his campaign back in July with a series of speeches on the trade threats to America: it’s China, it’s India, it’s Mexico—oh, it’s everybody, it turns out. This comes right out of the script. Of course, inevitably, the next step is immigration. That’s a huge part of fascist ideology—that our national bloodstream is being poisoned by these people coming from the outside, and if they do that, God knows what’s going to happen to us as a nation, as a race. So you begin to march through these themes. I don’t think that fascism is just another word for authoritarianism. It really is a specific ideology. I hate to say it, but it’s National Socialism.
JEFFREY: It’s anti-globalist. If you’re not anti-globalist, then you can’t be a fascist. You’ve got to be autarkist and radical protectionist, and you have to be anti-immigration. If you’re not that, you’re probably not a fascist. I really think that this is a very specific thing. There are other things that are related to fascism.
ROBIN: I certainly agree with all of that. I guess what I was asking in my question—maybe I didn’t ask it very well was—I almost feel we’re dignifying him by imagining that he’s got a conscious philosophy.
JEFFREY: Oh, I see.
ROBIN: Do you see what I mean? So I was talking, I guess, about—I don’t want to say the epistemology of it—but kind of that.
JEFFREY: Yeah, yeah. I know what you mean. And I’ve kind of thought about this a long time; it’s like: is Trump doing this deliberately? Is he very cynically manipulating this old-style ideology and with profound awareness of what it means? Or is he just shooting from the hip trying to find the thing that exists within the recesses of the bourgeois mind? [laughs]
JEFFREY: I’m not sure there’s an answer to that really, because they do kind of blend together, don’t you think? Historically?
ROBIN: Yes, in practice, absolutely.
JEFFREY: In practice, yeah. In a way, fascist ideology is socialism purified of its unpopular elements. That’s really all it is.
JEFFREY: That’s where fascism came from. It’s sort of a syndicalist socialism that got rid of the annoying things about socialism like its atheism, and its globalism, and its attack on property, and the family and that sort of thing. So you dispense with all that and all you’re left with is a sort of raw ideology of power that’s structured to appeal to basically the worst in all of us.
ROBIN: I bet the best way, though, to understand Trump’s base, if we can use that, is through personality-typing. I bet his base is … (if you wanted to do it demographically—I mean you can do it demographically—“white people”—you can do that… but) … I bet they’re all high on the authoritarian scale. I would imagine.
JEFFREY: Yes. I would think so. There’s been a number of studies that were done on that. It sounds right to me. It’s a radically anti-liberal ideology. Robin, over the last six months as I’ve been writing about fascism, I initially thought it was enough to say: “Look, Trump’s a fascist for the following reasons, or at least he leads a fascist-style movement for the following reasons.” At some point in the course of the last several months, I realized that it’s not enough to say that. I had to actually explain what is wrong with fascism as an ideology, and that’s a challenge, actually, because it requires that you explain liberalism.
ROBIN: Okay, so that kind of bleeds in to another question I want to ask—looking at this topic from a slightly different angle—which is (and this again is something that you have written directly about recently) this relationship between liberty and populism, or the lack of one. I think you wrote an article and the subhead was “In Favor of Antidisestablishmentarianism”, which amused me. Speak a little bit about that, if you will.
JEFFREY: Robin, I have to tell you, and I hope this is true for everybody in this sort of business of ideas: I feel like I’ve gone through a little bit of an ideological—how do you say it—maybe shift, or maturation or something over the course of 2015. That’s why I say I am grateful to Trump in a way; he sort of helped me grow up a little bit. I think, I’m not entirely sure about this, but I think in the past, I imagined the world worked very much the way Katniss in Hunger Games thought that the world worked in the first movie. It’s like the government is bad and the people are good; the people want liberty; the government’s preventing us from getting liberty. So all we need to do is get rid of the government, and what you’ll be left with is this beautiful flourishing of happiness. This was a Manichean sort of perspective on the world. I am not sure that I ever consciously adopted that, but I think that’s in fact what I carried around with me.
Well, reality is much more complicated—both in The Hunger Games and in American elections. In The Hunger Games, it turns out that within the structure of the revolutionary forces that are trying to overthrow the government you have within itself a power dynamic; and the people who are most incentivized to lead the revolution have the most to gain from it, and therefore the highest aspiration is to themselves; to displace the prevailing establishment, and then institute some other form of rule, which in fact could be more cruel than that which it replaced. That’s where life gets really complicated. This was an amazing revelation for me—both when I watched the movies and when I watched the Trump campaign because I suddenly realized there could be something even worse than what we have.
JEFFREY: Do you understand what I mean?
ROBIN: Oh, absolutely.
JEFFREY: That’s a weird sort of revelation. I mean your whole life you think, “Okay, it’s good and evil. Government is evil and the people are good, and then suddenly it’s like: ‘Wait, just a minute. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here because if you tear up the pea patch too quickly, you could find yourself starving.’” It doesn’t make me less of an anarchist, but I think what it’s done, Robin, is make me much less of a populist than I was in the past.
ROBIN: Just keep going on that.
JEFFREY: I’ve realized there is an ideology out there called “populism” that consists of would-be power-holders who are manipulating the public against the establishment with an intention to impose an even more cruel level of rule and that people are easily manipulated through politics. Isn’t it extraordinary? Maybe people are just generally easy to manipulate. I don’t know. Maybe it’s easy to sell trinkets to people that they don’t need; to sell food that they shouldn’t eat. But look, the damage is limited. If I go out and eat a cupcake with too much icing, that might make me a little sick to my stomach and add a few pounds to me, but at least the damage is limited to myself. But if I do the same unwise activity politically, I’m imposing damage upon millions and tens of millions and hundreds of millions of people.
Human decision-making is always and everywhere flawed. So what is the goal here? I think the goal is to limit the damage. To the extent that people are making decisions, you want them to be individual decisions about what they personally do to themselves or maybe to just the units that they’re influential in. But if you transfer decision-making to a mass body of people, then you’re playing, really, with fire because the results are externalized to the whole of the population. That’s a serious problem, and that’s something we really need to think about. I’ve begun to really doubt, fundamentally, the political election processes as a viable—on a mass basis—as a viable way to move the social order in an ever more libertarian direction. I’ve really begun to doubt this.
ROBIN: I’m presuming you doubted that before Trump, though, quite deeply.
JEFFREY: You’re right, Robin. I did But I didn’t feel it as intensely. But now, this year, I find myself totally embedded in the works of Machiavelli. I need to understand what he wanted, and the results of my studies were very surprising to me. There were really two things he was trying to protect against: one was a challenge to the power of the prince—slaughter your enemies, and do it fast; but the other thing was the threat of a mass movement of pillaging people under the heads of somebody like Savonarola in Florence. He was this black beast.
ROBIN: Jeffrey, we’re coming up to the end of this segment. We’ll just come back and finish this in a second.
ROBIN: Hey, Jeffrey: you were in full flow about Machiavelli, and I unfortunately had to cut you off because we went in to that final break. In this little two and a half minute segment that we close the show out with, please continue your thought.
JEFFREY: Just a quick story about Machiavelli. He was an advisor to the Medicis and an advisor to the Vatican. And they would say, “How do you maintain power against all threats?” One of the threats he faced was the likes of Savonarola, who was a kind of spiritual leader in Florence, who whipped up the masses into a kind of an anti-materialist and an anti-liberal frenzy. So suddenly the youth are recruited to beat or pillage the property of the rich; women are encouraged to get rid of their silk dresses and their fancy curls and perfume and makeup. Never trust anybody who hates makeup, by the way, they’re always on their way to becoming Savonarola…
ROBIN: [laughs] You heard it here first.
JEFFREY: [laughs] … And to drive the Medicis out, which of course leads to vast impoverishment and human suffering, and the bonfire the vanities, inevitably. Machiavelli is very interesting. Yes, he was a statist, but he was also a liberal.
ROBIN: Yes. Interesting.
JEFFREY: What he wanted was a powerful state that would stop the arbitrary mass-actions on the part of crazy people under the leadership of superstitious, dangerous would-be autocrats, who are encouraging the burning of property, the burning of witches and so on. Once the government gets maximum control, then it should allow maximum liberty, right? So he was a real libertarian-republican in a way. I think it’s the right way to understand him; we have a lot to learn from him. That’s all I’m saying.
ROBIN: That’s very interesting. I’m also thinking—I don’t know where I read about this—in modern history, it has always been the case that liberal societies really have only survived as such, if you’ve had strong governments that build the liberal institutions, often in a non-democratic way. And when the liberal institutions are in place, then the state can become less autocratic, less statist—if you like. It does seem to work that way.
JEFFREY: I know this is music to a minarchist’s ears. And speaking as an anarchist, I can only say that it provides…
ROBIN: Jeffrey, we’re out of here. We’ll have to come back on this one…
V. HENRY GEORGE—THE MOST IMPORTANT ECONOMIST YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF
ROBIN KOERNER: Welcome to another fun edition of Blue Republican Radio with me, Robin Koerner, talking to one of my favorite guests. Regular listeners of my show will know that this gentleman is one of my favorite guests: the awesome and extremely well-dressed, Jeffrey Tucker, author of five books, the latest one of which is, “Bit by Bit: How P2P is Freeing the World”. Also, he is well-known now as the founder of the increasingly successful and very successful liberty.me. Always my pleasure to speak with him. And the reason I had him back for this the fourth time—and if you haven’t heard the other three interviews, go and do that before you listen to this one because they’re really that good—the reason I asked him to come on the show this fourth time was because a few months ago, I was on his website, which is jeffreytucker.me (go there too) and was rather delighted to discover that he had written an article about Henry George, who might be the most important economist you’ve never heard of. Or he might also be—if you are a libertarian—an economist you think you don’t need to know anything about because maybe you kinda heard his name in relation to some tax on land and you think that therefore he must be one of those damned statist socialist types. And you would be broadly wrong.
So when I read this article by Jeffrey, I was so excited that one of the heavyweights of the liberty community in America had even mentioned this guy, because he’s so important. He’s so important to the history of the 19th century; his ideas are important, and I think they present some serious challenges for current libertarian orthodoxy. I’ve invited Jeffrey on this show just to tell us a little bit about Henry George, his life and times, and maybe—if we have some time—to get a bit philosophical on some of the ideas that Henry George propounded that were so important and made such a huge impact in his time, which was, as I say, the 19th century. Jeffrey, thanks for coming on the show again.
JEFFREY TUCKER: Thank you for having me and thanks for coming up with this topic because, as you say, it’s actually hard to get people really interested in this topic of Henry George, which is actually really strange because Henry George was a massive influence in his lifetime. His influence extended from the 1880s until World War II.
JEFFREY: His book was the second best-selling book next to the Bible really during his life. It’s just awesome.
ROBIN: And what was the title of his book, Jeffrey?
JEFFREY: Wealth and Poverty, I think. Am I getting that right? No, that’s George Gilder’s book. What is the name of the book? Tell me.
ROBIN: Yes, I’m going to pull that up myself right now. The Science of Political Economy?
JEFFREY: No, it was the one I reviewed. It’s a gigantic book. And isn’t it just extraordinary that neither of us actually have it.
ROBIN: That’s right. [laughs] We can talk about his ideas for hours and don’t actually have the title of his book right here. You’re pulling it up right now, aren’t you?
JEFFREY: Yes, I am. It’s not The Science of Political Economy. It is…
ROBIN: That was his last book, right?
JEFFREY: Yeah, that was his last book. Wealth and poverty? Progress and Poverty! Very close.
ROBIN: Progress and Poverty! Yes, thank you.
JEFFREY: It’s well-titled actually. I don’t think… Well, in the first place, I do think that people should read the book because it was so gigantically influential in his time, and it’s an important economic treatise. The other thing is that it’s just wrong that a book that was so influential over so many, including libertarians, in the 20th century [is unknown]. I mean, you think about it: all of the Georgists from Albert Jay Nock to Frank Chodorov—and Frank Chodorov was actually Head of the Henry George School. Frank Chodorov was the primary influence behind Rothbardian anarchism.
ROBIN: Yeah, there’s an interesting link.
JEFFREY: Yeah, there’s a real heritage here. This is the real deal; this isn’t just some fly-by-night weirdo. His ideas were formative for the American libertarian tradition. I like to think of him in many ways as the Ayn Rand of his time because there was a similar sort of situation. The guy was a natural genius and a polymath, but mostly an autodidact. He didn’t hold a university post, but he was respected by everybody in academia—at least he had to be grappled with. His book sold, I think—not exaggerating—millions of copies.
ROBIN: I think actually he wasn’t formally educated beyond the age of about 14, right?
JEFFREY: Yeah, that’s right, that’s right. He got a lot of things correct. But it’s also important when you read it to not read it outside of the time in which it’s written really and to understand the times in which it’s written. This is the fin de siècle 20th century, right before World War I, the closing period of the Gilded Age, late age of laissez-faire, and people all over the developed world were seeing dramatic changes all around them that were sending the social order into upheaval in ways that nobody thought were possible. Primarily, what this means is that the structures of the ruling class were changing away from aristocratic elite and inherited wealth over to a sort of a new merited wealth as they grew out of hard work, entrepreneurship, and innovation. And governments were playing an ever lesser role in people’s lives and technology was rising, but mostly—it was just amazing—it wasn’t just that capitalism at the time was creating a middle class (it was even much more radical than that): it was that the poor and immigrant classes were dramatically expanding in their buying power and longevity and realized income day to day, and were threatening to upset a social order just completely in ways that nobody ever imagined. So far as I can tell, there were two general reactions to this: one was panic…
ROBIN: [laughs] The old standard…
JEFFREY: … Panic and fear and loathing, which was mostly the response of the upper classes—the old-style ruling class left over from the early 19th-century and before—really, the left-over feudal lords/class. And also native populations, especially in America, were just in meltdown over what was happening because how was it possible that you would have these peasant, ghastly immigrants coming in from God-knows-where, showing up and making so much money so that they were richer than the central state. This was a serious problem. And everybody was concerned very much too about population, that the wrong people were multiplying. I shouldn’t say the wrong people—that’s what the upper classes would think—but just the poor and middle classes that were ascending in social power were propagating themselves at a much greater rate than the old elite classes. So many people were very concerned about this and hatching all sorts of ghastly plans from eugenics to everything else. It was just a horrible situation. On the other hand, there was a class of intellectuals that celebrated this change and thought that it was foreshadowing a new kind of world—a world of universal prosperity and thriving for everyone. Henry George fell in that latter camp—in a beautiful way. He just had this vision of a world that was possible of peace and plenty, so his views really cut against elite opinion at the time, and I think formed a kind of humanitarian basis for the emergence of the new libertarianism much later. And for that matter, he had a lot of influence over the early socialists too—we shouldn’t rule that out. I think what matters here is that Henry George had an optimistic, ebullient, hopeful message for humanity that we could be free, we could be prosperous, and this freedom and this prosperity and flourishing could belong to everybody equally. That’s lovely.
ROBIN: It is indeed lovely as you say. Now, we’re coming to the end of this first segment already, and we’ve set up the background. Since we don’t have a lot of time, I just want to read the quote that you quoted in your article about Henry George. Henry George said: “Liberty calls to us again. We must follow her further; we must trust her fully. Either we must wholly accept her or she will not stay. It is not enough that men should vote; it is not enough that they should be theoretically equal before the law. They must have liberty to avail themselves of the opportunities and means of life.” Which gives you a sense of his perspective. We’re going in to the break. When we come back, I’d like to speak with you, Jeffrey, about what were his ideas that did have such an impact in the times that you have described? This is Blue Republican Radio; we shall be back after the break.
ROBIN: This is Blue Republican Radio. I am talking to the Jeffrey Tucker about the 19th-century American economist, Henry George. So, Jeffrey, in that first segment, you’ve nicely kind of set the context—especially the social and economic context—for Henry George’s work. What were his ideas—what was it about his book—that were so revolutionary, that had this deep—and as you said earlier—long-lasting impact on political thought in various areas—all over the spectrum?
JEFFREY: We talked about his optimism and his hope, but really I think what you have in Henry George is a sort of—how do I put it—he was against entrenched hierarchies and corporatism and the ruling class’ control of economic resources. He saw within the structure of the state, especially, a coming together between the state and the corporate class that he saw as deeply dangerous and injurious to prosperity. He was against monopoly; he was against monopoly privilege. He saw it as parasitical—living off the rest of civilization—and saw all the progress we’d seen over the preceding several hundred years as essentially a gradual breaking down of privilege. In that sense, would you say he was a member of the left or the right? I’m not sure that the categories really pertained to him because he was definitely… and this is where I think, Robin, people get very confused… he was a champion of laissez-faire; he was a champion of old-fashioned liberty. It’s really interesting because his paradigmatic case of wicked privilege that exists in the world was protectionism and, especially, expert monopolism as Schumpeter would later call it. “Export monopolism”: when powerful corporate interests grab hold of state power and rig the system to their benefit. This to Henry George was an injustice that produced artificial economic inequalities, and he was very anxious for policies that would wipe those out. Yes, he wanted a universal natural liberty; he wanted a universal right to property and wanted no legal barriers to social and economic advance. It’s interesting. I’m fascinated by this. As you read through it, you wonder how it is possible that guy like this would have such an influence on what today look like divergent streams of thought—on one hand, socialists who claim him, and on the other hand, the capitalistic libertarian tradition, which also, similarly, traces some aspects of its ideology to Georgist lineage. I don’t know really entirely how to answer that question except to say that that division didn’t exist in his time.
ROBIN: Yes. There’s an obvious sense in which he could be called, certainly by motivation, a classical liberal, right?
JEFFREY: No question. He lived in that liberal tradition. As long as you understand that that liberal tradition is not the same thing as what came to be called in post-World War II America “conservatism” because he was definitely not a conservative. He was a genuine liberal—a genuine classical liberal.
ROBIN: So let me take a punt at the question that you’ve kind of left hanging here. You said that he was interested in, you might say, universal access to the economy and economic resources. Flipping that around, he was concerned with the exclusionary effects, some of which you’ve described, of privilege and of monopoly. From that concern, comes his single most—well, his single, biggest idea that we still talk about—which is this idea of a land tax. With the libertarian hat on, and I know you’re going to disagree with this statement, but I’m going to say this to be provocative: for the reasons that Henry George gave for his land tax, you could call it the most libertarian tax—justified as he justified it: the most libertarian possible, the fairest possible tax. On the other hand, it is radical.
First of all, it is a tax, and it is in purpose a radically inclusive. The idea of the Land Tax is that George sees the exclusion of access to land by its being held by those with privilege—invariably inherited privilege—as being hugely important. The reason he sees it as being hugely important, and the reason, also, that his case for the Land Tax could be regarded as the most libertarian case for a tax—is that what he’s trying to do with the land tax is to extract the increase in value of privately held land by virtue of the operations of the community around that land … He’s trying to extract that positive externality and externalize it. He’s trying to give to the community what the community has earned. If I have a field in the middle of the city, and the community builds roads and conducts its economic activities around it, then my land, by virtue of my doing nothing—not even clever analysis—makes me richer, just because I own it. Add that to the fact that all land was originally acquired in violation of the non-aggression principle (I mean, almost no land in the western world was acquired without aggression) and you start to get a kind of a liberty-driven case for the one tax, this Land Tax, which is the extraction of this positive externality to the community. Henry George didn’t just want to add a tax: he wanted to do away with all other taxes and leave us with this one tax. If the community raises the value of private land, that increase in value goes back to the community. It’s a radical idea, but you could see why socialists like it and why, nevertheless, it fits with a broadly classical liberal motivation.
JEFFREY: I think you’re working way too hard at this actually. It’s not as complicated as all that. First of all, you’re right: he wanted to get rid of all taxes. For example the biggest tax of the time was the tariff, which he says specifically contributed mightily to the creation of the Civil War in the US, which I don’t think that there’s any question that that’s right, and just generally causes conflicts. There was no such thing really as an income tax; there was nothing to get rid of there. But yes, he wanted to get rid of all other forms of revenue and impose a land tax. Now, I don’t know that that’s the same thing as wanting to nationalize land. I get a little confused when I read him and exactly how far he wanted to go with this.
ROBIN: I don’t believe he did want to do that.
JEFFREY: You don’t think he did?
ROBIN: No, I don’t believe so.
JEFFREY: Well, okay. Sometimes it seems a little ambiguous towards the end, but the point was that he was trying to figure out a solution to what he saw as being injustice. And that the injustice existed, there could be no question. I think it took two different forms in the UK versus the US. In the old world… I hope you don’t mind that Americans refer to your land as the “old world”—that’s the way Americans speak. We’ll always speak that way. [laughs]
ROBIN: [laughs] I kinda like it. It’s quaint.
JEFFREY: That’s the way they are. Our Founding Fathers taught us to speak about your place—“the old world.” Anyway, in the old world, yes of course all land was owned by virtue of a monopoly privilege granted by the crown. That’s just a given. It has nothing to do with free markets, and it certainly has nothing to do with a Lockean scenario. This was just outright the state granting a privilege. That was not necessarily true in the US. It took a different form in the US, but what really got under Henry George’s skin, I guess you could say, was the way the railroads were built in the US was just an unbelievable scam. It was what I think inspired him. If you got some sort of land grant from the state, or required some land, some title for whatever reason…
ROBIN: Hold on, Jeffrey. We’re going in to the break, so we’re going to have to come back on this straight after.
ROBIN: I’m talking to Jeffrey Tucker about Henry George, and unfortunately, I had to cut him off there was we went in to the break. Jeffrey, please go back to that thought. You were talking about the way that the land was acquired for the railroads in the United States.
JEFFREY: The value was guaranteed to go up with all the land anywhere near a railroad. Then the banks would move in at the same time and issue all these bonds for investment—railroad bonds—so the value of the land would go sky-high and investors would become part of these stock-jobbing, bond-dealing scams. Many times the banks would go belly-up. This is where we get the term “wildcat banking.” And the banks were working hand-in-glove with the state, and the state with the land owners. So you have kind of tri-partite scamming operation here. And a lot of railroads were themselves built and subsidized by tax dollars. There is nothing libertarian about it. People were scandalized to see the very wealthy and privileged raking in the big bucks from these railroad rackets while the workers and peasants, were working hot, long days, driving in the railroad spikes into the rails and building them all over the place and dying of heat exhaustion. Yes, they had jobs; yes, they got wages, but they were not benefitting from the increase of the value of the land all around them. It struck him as just being wrong. Indeed, there was something weird about this. Why weren’t—and this is the way he opens the book—why were the profits not being distributed to the people who were actually creating the value?
JEFFREY: Why was the value of all this new enterprise accruing to people who weren’t doing anything? Other than they had privileged positions of ownership backed by state-controlled banks that were guaranteed at public expense. The whole system was extremely fishy. I’m not sure that his solution is the right one, but I don’t really think that’s the point; the point was he was drawing attention to an injustice and trying to come up with some solution. He saw, and he was right, that this was not a free market operation; this was something else and it cried out for a solution. Else, he figured, we’re going to continue to create ever more inequalities between rich and poor at the expense of the public. That’s really the subject he was addressing. As far as I can tell, that’s the core of his concern about land. I personally feel like there are really other sources besides the land ownership as such that he could have gone after, but I don’t think he could be faulted for having the concern that he had. A lot of his analysis strikes me as very sound.
ROBIN: I do want to push this a little bit, because you’ve there elucidated Henry George’s concern with cronyism as a basis for the transfer of wealth to those who hold land. Indeed, he was very concerned with that. But you also mentioned Locke, and when libertarians talk about Locke and we talk about homesteading and making private property, we often forget that Locke said that (I’m massively paraphrasing here) the making private property out of land that was not yet private property is legitimate only if in so doing you don’t eliminate the possibility that others have also to homestead and acquire that property or similar property. Henry George was, I think, concerned with more than cronyism, because once there is no more land to be acquired in that way, and because they don’t make land like they make widgets, the private holding of land is exclusionary. It is inherently exclusionary. Once all land is, as it were, taken, the work of everybody else necessarily increases the value of that privately held land. So it’s kind of a different-way-round version of what we’ve got going on with the banks, whose profits are privatized and losses are socialized. Henry George, I think, was concerned about privatizing profits made by society. That’s what he was concerned about, and so this is a problem that I think is special to land. I think this wasn’t just cronyism. I think this was more of a philosophical concern for Henry George, wouldn’t you say?
JEFFREY: You might be right about that. Of course, I want to read him very sympathetically. I don’t really agree that there’s anything in principle different about land as versus chairs or shoes.
ROBIN: The fundamental difference is that there’s profit to be made in making more shoes and that that can be reasonably done. Whereas land is like the air, like the water—it’s naturally provided and there’s a certain amount of it.
JEFFREY: I’ve always had a slight problem with that, mainly because he’s mostly talking about the US case, and there’s a lot of land in the US. Its natural scarcity doesn’t seem to me … When I take a coast-to-coast flight, I’m always in awe of just how much land there is, and I’m always struck by this because those anti-immigrant crowds say there’s no more room left in America. Well, this place is practically uninhabited as far as I can tell.
ROBIN: But the point is whether it’s already owned—not the size of the piece of land, but whether there’s any of it left to be claimed, to be homesteaded.
JEFFREY: That’s true enough. The use of land can be subjected to a market also and is, and it’s always going to find its highest use in a pure market. I just think the whole thing is complicated. We saw a repeat of the same darn thing when Eisenhower constructed the interstate highway system, actually. Because there was a massive redistribution of wealth that took place entirely at taxpayer expense and an injustice very similar to the same injustices we saw during Henry George’s time, and it has nothing to do with markets. The interstate highway system bankrupted whole towns and pillaged people left and right and transferred wealth from the middle class and the poor to the rich. It was just the same sort of situation. Anytime you get these large-scale government projects and you get this redistribution taking place, you’re going to create these kinds of injustices. Like I said, it’s like land gives rise to these sorts of injustices that are large-scale and obvious and outrageous really. I guess I’m unpersuaded that land is a specialized, unique form of property that calls for a different handling by public policy. This is where I think I can’t go along with George. Though, as I say, I’m very sympathetic to the reasons that he had for the views he had.
ROBIN: What about this? I’m just poking here…
JEFFREY: That’s fine.
ROBIN: What about the fact that all economic activity depends on the use of land as a natural resource? It is the fundament of all economic activity and, therefore, wealth-creation.
JEFFREY: I think you could say that about a lot of things in the world besides land. Almost everything is essential to everything else. It’s hard to just isolate one resource and say, “Well, without this nothing is going to happen.” You could say the same thing about sparkplugs in cars or tires in cars or starters in cars. Everything is essential to everything else in a networked eco-system of markets.
ROBIN: So to that, I can make a table without the existence of sparkplugs in cars, but what I’m saying is—I think Henry George would say (and I wasn’t around when he was so I might be putting words into his mouth but I think he would say): nothing can be made except by somebody occupying land. That it’s fundamental in that sense. It’s kind of a whole different order of magnitude of necessary to all economic activity.
JEFFREY: I think that that might have looked true in his time, but as the economy advanced, and especially now in the digital age where we see so much value being attached to things like digits and ideas and so many other sources of value: I think we can see that it was a kind of illusion that was created at the end of the agricultural era leading to the industrial era. I understand why he believed it, but I don’t think that that is plausible in any sense now. In fact, I think it’s almost an atavistic concern really. I can tell you that ten years ago—or not even ten years ago—six years ago, there were a lot of land owners in the US that would have been glad to have gotten rid of it before the housing markets crashed.
JEFFREY: Land is subject to market constraints just like anything else. I do think it was something of a distraction, and I’m not even prepared to say I understand exactly where his mistake was because I’m not quite that sophisticated. Plus, I’m not actually interested in criticizing him. I’m just not. He got more right than he got wrong, even by my limited lights and understandings. I think his vision of a universal ever-increasing prosperity and just believing that that would be a good thing for humanity is a good enough reason. And his anti-cronyism, I think, is still very relevant.
ROBIN: Oh, absolutely.
JEFFREY: I don’t know about the specifics of his Land Tax idea, or whether or not that is something that would gain us any advantage in the policy environment today. I think of it more as a historical concern. As I say, I think he got more right than he got wrong, and I’m also intrigued at just how powerful his vision was that it swept up several generations—really, many generations—in a love for his vision of society. And, Robin, aren’t you intrigued too? … You opened up the segment by saying “the most famous economist you’ve never heard of.” What happened to Henry George? How is it that somebody can be so beloved and famous and influential for half a century, who just then gets somehow blasted away by the trends of history? I don’t entirely understand it.
ROBIN: The obvious answer to that is that there were huge interests in burying his ideas—literally landed interests—that wanted to bury his ideas. Even Churchill—Winston Churchill—that old Tory spoke favorably and extensively in parliament about the Land Tax as a means to counteract socio-economic injustice in Britain.
JEFFREY: Isn’t that interesting? That’s amazing, isn’t it? It’s fascinating to hear your point of view because I just don’t know that there are economic interests in the US that would have had a strong desire to bury the ideas of Henry George. My general impression is that after World War II and American intellectual history, there was something very strange that happened in this country. It was as if everything was forgotten.
ROBIN: You mentioned that before, didn’t you? I think in an earlier interview, you mentioned that there was this kind of paradigm shift.
JEFFREY: Yeah, like the young people didn’t care about any of the older ideas and, I mean, ideas that were in constant circulation, even ten years before World War II, just somehow got wiped out. It’s like everything was recreated all over again following World War II. There was no intellectual history for some reason. Our old heroes were just gone. Even giants—Henry George, H.L. Mencken—we can go through these figures, great liberal thinkers from the progressive era. Their voices were just muted and shut down and everything just somehow started over. I don’t know… Was it the bomb? Was it the killing? Was it the central planning and censorship? Or just the shattering of the social fabric that came about during the war? It’s like the whole of American intellectual society regrouped, and Henry George was just one casualty of that. At least, that’s my impression.
ROBIN: I know in Britain after the War, with the landslide Labor victory, and they kicked out Churchill right after he arguably saved the Western world, the British voted in the Labor government for the welfare state. They wanted Labor’s welfare state—the cradle to grave welfare state, which now is said with some derision. It’s almost a derogatory term, “cradle to grave welfare state,” but back then it was the vision, and it was the vision that all of these British people who had fought the War thought was just about the only vision on the table that, as it were, would retroactively justify the price they had just paid as a nation. They wanted to give themselves something of the same magnitude as the cost they had just borne, and in so in England, for sure, there was a huge, sudden, and very conscious and deliberate move to the Left, to Statism. And that, I’m sure, was tectonic certainly in England. I obviously don’t have the same depth of knowledge of that period in the States.
JEFFREY: In the States, it’s very strange because the mythology is that we went to war against autocratic, fascist dictatorships and won and therefore vanquished them from the earth along with the ideologies that gave rise to them—forever. As a result, we have an impoverished political culture in the US because we don’t actually have terms to describe these would-be autocratic demagogues like Donald Trump. He comes along, sounding exactly like we had a séance of some interwar strongman. People are like, “Oh, that’s fascinating. Wow, what a fresh idea. This is a new perspective.” Never mind he sounds just like Franco.
ROBIN: [laughs] I love it. Jeffrey, that’s a great link. We are going in to the final break. This is Blue Republican Radio.
ROBIN: It’s been another fun and eye-opening interview with Jeffrey Tucker. This is me, Robin Koerner, the original Blue Republican. We’re closing out the show. I’ve been laughing in the break there, Jeffrey, thinking about your comments about Trump. What do you make, in the last two minutes, of the Presidential candidate shenanigans and what we’re seeing in American politics right now?
JEFFREY: What we’re seeing is this sort of mass bamboozlement of the bourgeoisie in America. It’s quite extraordinary. It’s amazing that people don’t recognize what this guy is saying and what he’s up to. I actually heard him speak in Las Vegas, and it was, Robin—I can’t even describe to you. My jaw is on the floor for an hour, alternating between ghastly horror and laughing uproariously because he’s aping all the language of this interwar fascistic trend that swept both the US and Europe. His rhetoric was so palpable. What’s fascinating to me also is—and people don’t talk about this—you know what his main issue is? It’s trade. He wants the US to behave as if it’s a single firm, a single monopoly firm and belligerently assert its monopoly power all over the world in war-like ways. Now, what would somebody like Henry George have said about this? He would have said that this guy is a spokesman for the most privileged ruling class wealth-holders in America, and indeed he is. He speaks like that, and Henry George would have seen right through this guy. It’s because we don’t read Henry George, and we don’t understand his vision of liberalism—particularly the Republicans don’t seem to recognize this. And it’s a reminder, Robin, that there are worse things in the world than the status quo. I think in the case of Donald Trump, that’s really what we are talking about.
ROBIN: So in the last fifteen seconds of this show, do we need to be worried about Donald Trump? Or is he going to be a flash in the pan?
JEFFREY: You know, I want him to be a flash in the pan, but history gives us too many examples of taking these people too lightly. I think maybe we’ll know more tomorrow night after the debate, but it might be time to start getting serious about this.
ROBIN: Thanks very much, Jeffrey. Thanks for being with me on Blue Republican Radio.
VI. BEAUTY IS TRUTH; TRUTH IS BEAUTY
ROBIN KOERNER: Welcome back to Blue Republican Radio with me, Robin Koerner. This is the show for the liberty-curious and the liberty-committed. I am speaking today to someone who is highly liberty-committed and someone from whom you’ve heard a lot already, if you’ve listened to this show. And if you have listed to this show, you know that he is maybe my favorite guest of all. But before I tell you who he is—if you haven’t guessed already—I should say that I recently listened to my current guest doing an interview with another guest that I’ve had on this show. Okay, I am going to give the names away now.
I am speaking today to Jeffrey Tucker, chief liberty officer of liberty.me and distinguished fellow of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE). But another one of my guests, Kurt Wallace—and you can check him out in the archives of this show—interviewed Jeffrey on a fantastic show that Kurt has called The Flow. If you’re listening to this on Podcast, you might want to stop now, get in to Google and type in “Jeffrey Tucker Kurt Wallace The Flow” and listen to that interview because it was that interview that inspired me to ask Jeffrey Tucker to come back to this show to discuss the following. When he spoke to Kurt, I learned that Jeffrey is a convert to Catholicism, and I was very taken with his explanation as to why he made that deeply personal choice. As that interview went on, all I could think of was—what might be the most famous line of John Keats from his poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn—which is, “beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Jeffrey, welcome to the show.
JEFFREY TUCKER: Thank you and thanks for raising this topic. It’s a fascinating one, and one I enjoy talking about with intelligent people but don’t enjoy talking about with people who are dogmatically partisan about it because I don’t like to argue about religion so much. But I do like to use it as some kind of prism to understand human life and society. So I am looking forward to this.
ROBIN: With that said, Jeffrey, I think to make sense of how I’ve opened the show, could you—this might be a little repetitious for you, but it won’t be for my listeners who haven’t heard the interview with Kurt—could you explain a little bit about what drew you in to Catholicism and why you made that leap?
JEFFREY: It’s funny—every time I tell the story, it’s slightly different, and that’s not because one is false and one is true. It’s that there are so many different things operating in the mind when one takes such a step. Initially, I think I explained my decision almost rationalistically. I read an article I had written within the year of my conversion, and it gave all these sorts of pedantic reasons: from history, holy scripture was cobbled together by church fathers out of documents; it wasn’t descended from the clouds; that it was an act of man; you could trace the prose back to St. Peter and so and so on. And there is a tradition of Marian worship that Protestantism dropped and so on and so on. As the years went by, I realized, yes, those are all sort of issues I had to grapple with intellectually, but I don’t think that’s why I converted. I don’t think I converted for those reasons. I think maybe my misunderstandings of a lot of the intellectual issues were somehow stopping my conversion, but they weren’t the thing that caused me to get interested in it in the first place and finally drew me to it. And I remember distinctly the day I finally decided to make that decision. Having spent three years reading books on the topic and grappling with every issue from whether St. Blaise could really heal your throat to whether the water could really be holy, or whether there’s purgatory, and exactly what is the relationship between grace and the Church and on and on and on… I realized that I would never reach the end of these endless inquiries and that at some point, I had to just take a leap of faith. So I just stopped it. I said, “Okay, that’s it. That’s the end of my explorations. I am going to do this thing.”
It was strange, Robin, because I knew that I was putting on my soul a kind of indelible mark when I would do this. I’m not sure if you’re Catholic…
ROBIN: One of the reasons I should say, as you raise it, one of the reasons I was so drawn in to that interview is that I, as a precocious, young teenager was very religious. I lost my faith at about the age of 14, when I discovered quantum mechanics and realized I was wrong about the table that I was sitting at, so how could I be right about God or anything close to God. That was a big deal for me as a teenager, but then, when I was at Cambridge, I went into an 18-month religious crisis, that made me ill—it made me physically ill—and I was determined that I had to solve this, and answer this question for myself. I was focused almost manically on making a decision about a commitment to Christianity. I definitely flirted with a conversion to Catholicism, and I went the other way than from you. I went up to that line and decided that I couldn’t do that with intellectual honesty, and I know you have done it with intellectual honesty. Your reasons for doing it were, as it were, very different from my reasons for not doing it, but they resonate with me deeply. That was why what you were saying to Kurt about your conversion was kind of really quite important to me and why I wanted to discuss this with you.
JEFFREY: Well, sure. It does come down to the attraction of beauty for me. As I think back at it, I’m sure I could have reconstructed this at the time, or even within five years after converting. In fact, I think that new converts are so disoriented that they can’t even understand themselves. And one of the reasons for that is, as St. John of the Cross explains, is that the new convert is in a strange position of being coddled by God, so to speak, like a newborn child: fed and cared for and held in the warmth of his arms. You develop an illusory sense of comfort and even confidence about your life as a new convert. But then, as St. John of the Cross describes it, as time goes on, you grow up and you leave the arms, you become a toddler, and pretty soon you’re on your own. At some point you enter in to what he calls “the long dark night of the soul” where you feel a separation from God—like complete absence really—which all the greats saints have reported having had. Mother Teresa talks about years going by where she never felt the presence of God. “The long dark night” is there, but strangely that’s a period of clarity too, because it helps you understand yourself, and why you’ve made the decisions, and what your faith is made it, and why it’s important to you.
And so, after all this time, I’ve come to realize that I think the reason I converted was just a desperate desire to embrace a source of beauty, humaneness, longing for truth in the world—that, more than anything else—which I felt and understood primarily through the esthetic of liturgy.
ROBIN: OK, so let’s talk about that because I wanted to ask… What are the outward beautiful manifestations of Catholicism—liturgical or otherwise—that you’re referring to here?
JEFFREY: What I discovered almost immediately—the thing that blew me away and really never left me was entering into the Crypt Church of the National Shrine to a mass in Latin. And an old priest with a horrible voice but in a pious, humble manner, chanting the mass in Latin with just several notes and a broken chord. And the room filled with people—humble people—from all over the world listening and praying privately to this sound. There was a level of simplicity and clarity and truth that I had never experienced in my entire life.
ROBIN: Can you explain why you just put “and truth” in that sentence? What do you mean by that?
JEFFREY: “And truth”? Because I saw a longing to touch something meaningful and for there to be a meeting between eternity and time, somewhere out there. I really believe that truth has something to do… that there is such a thing as transcendence, and our understanding of truth is connected to that. And I’m inspired by the human attempt to create structures of art and belief that get us there, however close we can get. Maybe we never get there, but we can maybe touch it.
ROBIN: Thank you, Jeffrey.
ROBIN: I am spending a beautiful hour with Jeffrey Tucker—beautiful in more ways than one. Jeffrey, what caused me to get stuck—and you might just say to me, “You just couldn’t make the leap of faith, Robin…” and I don’t know what you’d say after that… but the cognitive claims that I felt to be an intellectually honest convert I would have to assent to or consent to … I just couldn’t do it. It’s been said, and I can’t remember by whom, that “the bigger the claim that you make or that you commit to, the more evidence you must have or at least perceive.” For example, transubstantiation. Do you believe that that is a true doctrine? And generally, what is your relationship with doctrine? What do you think is the relationship between doctrine and Catholicism as a Catholic, because my problem is that the doctrine claims its own primacy, I believe. Now you may dispute that, but what do you say about that?
JEFFREY: Well, I believe that the Church believes it, and therefore teaches it, and I’m happy to assent to this story that the Church has long told. That’s the way I put that. But I personally wouldn’t be prepared to… I could defend the doctrine. Am I prepared to defend it as if it’s my own belief? Probably not.
ROBIN: So therein lies my question: what does it mean to be a Catholic and not be able to say this is my own belief? This Keats’ line speaks to that because some would say that truth is the statement made with a truth value. It seems that for you, there is more truth in the beauty than in the claim to truth, and that’s what I kind of want to get to.
JEFFREY: Look, I’m just going to grant that the human mind doesn’t have access to final truth. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that we have that. I don’t think we will ever get that. If we pretend to, we’re going to be shattered and disabused of that in the course of time. I just ruled that out. I don’t think that the fullness of truth can ever be known by the human mind at all. I think we only grasp pieces of it and parts of it, and a lot of that we can only grasp through intuition. I’m happy to believe that there are aspects of truth in many different faiths really, and I’m not prepared to say that the Catholic faith has somehow magically and mysteriously grasped the wholeness of truth in a way that nobody else ever has. I don’t believe that, either.
ROBIN: Wouldn’t Catholicism claim that it isn’t a mystery in that sense: this is the Holy Spirit, acting through the tradition of the Church, which then interprets the revealed word, etc., etc.?
JEFFREY: I think that the Church has variously claimed that, but you have to look at the historical context in which those claims came about. The Church was a humble institution prior to the Council of Trent, actually.
ROBIN: Can you give us the year for that?
JEFFREY: This would have been 15th century. Suddenly you’re faced with the Protestant reformation and so the Church’s empire was now being challenged through this new radical set of beliefs. The Church sort of doubled down. The Church that emerged out of the Council of Trent was more dogmatic and centralized and intense about its claims to the truth than anything that had ever preceded it.
I try to look at these things from a historical point of view. It’s the same thing, Robin, with claims to papal infallibility, which, you notice, were never made until the loss of the papal states in the late 19th century. Suddenly the Church, faced with the loss of temporal power, was faced in a state of total panic. We’ve lived and thrived now for 1500 years or so, or longer, by baring the sword, and now the sword is loss to us: how can we possibly survive in a world of democracy and liberalism? And so, of course, Pius IX calls this council—calls the First Vatican Council—at the dawning of the age of democracy and insists on three forms of infallibility: faith, morals and politics. Why, Robin? He did it because he was afraid of the loss of power. And that was the purpose.
ROBIN: Yes, which I might throw my hands up and say, “Oh, all too human!” Self-falsifying in its humanity, one might say.
JEFFREY: The funny thing is: in a way, the Holy Spirit was at work in that council, because Pius IX was denied political infallibility by the Council. It was a loss for him. He lost the battle, and he was conceded doctrinal and ethical infallibility but was refused political infallibility. The Church suddenly found itself in 1870 or so completely at a loss.
ROBIN: Very interesting that the Church could believe that those things could be separate; that there’s any consistent way of having ethical infallibility without having political infallibility as if that line could be drawn. One thing that comes to mind as I hear you speak, and it is wonderful to hear you talking about this, is that there is something deeply protestant about your Catholicism! Because it’s an immediate reaction to a beauty that you experienced as an individual, it seems to me. In a very unmediated way. It does seem like the fundamental difference between Catholic Christianity and Protestant Christianity is the importance of mediation by the tradition or the Church, etc.
JEFFREY: I think that’s right. The funny thing is, Robin—and I just stumbled across as I was reading Canon law (I read everything before I converted)—and there is a clause in that and I wish I could cite the exact clause, but it talked a bit about the role of the individual conscience. The Canon Law specifically says, and it says it very bluntly and plainly, “if your conscience contradicts any order of the Church or any law of the Church, you are obligated to follow your well-formed conscience even to the point of disobedience.”
ROBIN: And to the point of excommunication? Because then you’re going down at the end of it all!
JEFFREY: Well, yeah. That’s true.
ROBIN: There seems to be contradiction in there somewhere, does there not?
JEFFREY: Well, yeah, excommunication. The point is that the Canon Law specifically teaches that the individual is primary, and yes that could result in your excommunication, and there have been very good people excommunicated throughout the centuries, and very bad ones too I could add, but yeah, you have to be very prepared to face that too. But you know, excommunication doesn’t mean that the Church is going to send you to the fires of hell forever. All it says is that it is going to cut you off from that one source of grace through the sacraments that the Church controls, but the Church doesn’t control the mind of God. Once you realize that, you let go of your fears of the Church.
ROBIN: See, that’s interesting. I don’t know that the Church ever has claimed to control, obviously, the mind of God, but certainly to be able to express it or manifest it in our physical realm in a way that no other institution can.
JEFFREY: Well, it was always a popular belief that the Church can send people to hell, and everybody always believed that. Up until very recently—maybe most people still believe that—I don’t know. But I don’t think the Church has ever actually taught that. There is no question that the Church has fostered that opinion. No question about it. Remember Lord Acton’s statement, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”?
ROBIN: Yes, yes.
JEFFREY: This was not made about princes or states or kings. This was a statement he made specifically with reference to the Pope—Pius IX in particular, who he thought was making wildly exaggerated claims for his own power. And that’s true: all power corrupts, and Lord Acton saw it happening in the Catholic Church. You have to use a critical mind here.
ROBIN: Thank you, Jeffrey. We’re going into the second break. This hour is going very fast, as it always does with you. We will be back in a few minutes.
ROBIN: In the break, I was asking Jeffrey if he believed in transubstantiation, and his answer was: “I believe it’s a very powerful metaphor.” And I responded to that by saying, “That sounds like a ‘no’, hedged by a religious person.” The reason I’m letting all of our listeners know about our little exchange, Jeffrey, is that it fits nicely with the question I wanted to open this, the third and longest, segment with. Which is: what does this quote from your interview with Kurt, when you said you “couldn’t resist embracing Catholicism as my own,” actually mean to you? You used the term, “practice the faith” somewhere in that interview. If your relationship with the dogma and the doctrine is as it is, then what does it mean to you? What do those words “practice the faith” mean?
JEFFREY: I think it’s impossible not to practice your faith if it’s a robust faith and it means something to you because it becomes a kind of template of understanding for life. It provides an orderly way of comprehending the course of life events. Christianity has a very powerful story of God taking on human form, which is a beautiful idea because it’s a way of blessing the material world. That’s great and important and powerful for the rise of modern civilization because this contrasts with innumerable agnostic cults that hated the material world, hated the body, and thought the body was corrupt. But Christianity did the opposite; it said, “No, the body and the humanity are just a little lower than the angels and so holy and so magnificent that God himself decided to become flesh and instantiate himself into the form that you and I hold.” That’s an extraordinary claim and a way of blessing life on earth and lifting up life as a sacred thing. That’s awesome.
ROBIN: It’s really interesting that you say that because I might say that, in some way, that mitigates the material/spiritual dualism that itself comes out of Judeo-Christianity that in Asian cultures doesn’t even exist. Like the question wouldn’t even arise in other cultures, so if it’s the raising of the material world that depends on the distinction of the material from the spiritual that doesn’t even exist in other cultures, Hinduism would suit you better on that basis, perhaps?
JEFFREY: You’re saying that that dualism doesn’t exist in other cultures, but certainly it existed in the culture where Christianity came into being. When you think about somebody like St. Augustine; what was his faith before he became a Christian? He was a Manichean. These were the people that believed in a sort of radical dualism: light and dark. The dark is the material world; the light is the spiritual world. The dark is material pleasure; the light is depravation, and so on. The Prophet Mani, or whatever his name was—his most dedicated followers were so afraid of living the good life that they lived under trees and waited for the fruits to fall before they ate them. They were sort of proto-environmentalists in a way.
ROBIN: Some might say though that Catholicism still is laden with that [dualism].
JEFFREY: Some aspects of it are, but this is the beautiful thing about Catholicism—it’s absolutely brilliant, Robin. Really, you shouldn’t criticize it. [laughs]
ROBIN: I am playing devil’s advocate, literally, here. [laughs]
JEFFREY: Every new calling that’s come along in the history of the Church whether it was the Dominicans or the Cistercians or the Franciscans, who were absolutely insane—the Church has figured out a way to make room them not with a universal teaching or esthetic, but one that lets people follow their own lights and embrace them within the framework… This I think is the wonderful thing about Catholicism, and we haven’t touched on this yet, but you mentioned earlier that Protestantism has an individualist style about it whereas Catholicism has more of a collectivist/authoritarian style. And I don’t deny that, but there is another aspect to this—namely that Catholicism has a universalism about it that transcends the nation state whereas Protestantism was born out of kind of a nationalist revolt: “the Germans are tired of giving their money to Rome. We must keep it in Germany. We need a German religion.” The English: “We need an English religion.” The Swiss: “We need a Swiss religion.” “We’re American for God’s sake, right? We need an American religion.”
ROBIN: And you can speak to that because you were formerly a southern Baptist, is that right?
JEFFREY: Yeah, that’s right, which is the faith I walked away from.
ROBIN: Oh, sure. And I understand why.
JEFFREY: I only became a Christian under great duress because otherwise my grandmother would have died with a broken heart. When I say “became a Christian”—the born again thing you have to do when you’re twelve, or whatever, right on the cusp of puberty, as it turns out. I left it as soon as I could because I found the whole religion to be preposterous, actually. For me, the beauty of Catholicism… People ask me all the time: “How can you be an anarchist and a Catholic?” To me, Catholicism is such a mighty, vast, historically expansive and universal faith. I don’t know how it could be rendered as anything other than anarchistic. It’s utterly divorced from the nation state.
ROBIN: I certainly take your point about “divorced from the nation state”, but again, as you’re saying that, I’m thinking: “There are children who have been terrified almost to the death by their priest, by Church communities because they might have gone to sleep masturbating and haven’t gotten to confession yet.” This is a very real thing. I know I was terrified and terrorized by the fear of hell for a significant period of my life. I really struggled with that. I often think…
JEFFREY: I find it ghastly. Especially the older I get, the more I’m mortified by those aspects of Catholicism; I should say aspects of Catholic history and practice. And I find it deeply regrettable, but I see this as just the Church is both human and divine, and the human part is very, very human—in its both good and bad respects. And the bad respect is the abuse of power, the use of fear to manipulate people, the overly strict rules that obviously contradict all of human experience and instinct, the codification—particularly in sexual ethics—of really extremist, almost Taliban-style spirit—is absurd. On the other hand, it’s something that emerged from history and can easily be rolled back, and actually, this is the best thing about the current Pope, I must say. He’s trying to undertake that process of reform, I think.
ROBIN: True enough. I want to just say again what I opened the show with: that line of Keats and ask you to address it directly, then. We’ve definitely been circling very closely around it: “beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/ Ye know on earth.” Is that statement both true and beautiful? And if so, explain.
JEFFREY: I think it is right. I saw within the beauty of the Catholic faith, a pathway to the truest thing that I can probably ever discover in my life. Not the final answer but a sort of channel—a pathway to walk, in which I felt like I could discover ever truer things. The beauty of it in particular was expressed to me through music. I was a jazz musician—a lifetime musician, a professional jazz trombonist in college. That’s the way I paid for my education (playing dance gigs). When I heard the simple Gregorian chants, I heard a kind of music and a simplicity and authenticity that I’d never experienced anywhere in my entire life, and I became obsessed with it. It was funny—I would go to mass and record on a little tape recorder the mass taking place and go home and listen to it all week. And then go back again and record another one and then come back and listen to it.
Oh, can I just quickly tell you, Robin, about this? I don’t know how much time we have left.
ROBIN: We’ve got another six or seven minutes on this segment, so we’re still pretty good.
JEFFREY: I went to a priest, who had sung that mass, and I set up a meeting with him. As it turns out, he was a physicist actually.
ROBIN: I like him already. That was how I trained—as a physicist.
JEFFREY: He was a physicist. I met him at his monastery, and he put on his robe, and we went for a walk. I began to hammer him with questions. “How can you believe that the Church is dispensing grace to the sacraments? Don’t you feel bad that all these people are embracing these superstitions all around? Look, every week, you’re seeing these poor ethnic people dig in to their wallets and shell out money for you and put water on them thinking it’s going to bless them. That they’re going to go to heaven. How can you be part of this?” I began to pester him with these questions, and he wouldn’t answer them. All he wanted to talk about was the flowers, and the sun, where I’m from, and all kinds of aspects of nature, and wanted to know about me, and he was just a very sweet man. I found him very charming, and he was interested in me as a person. We got back to the monastery, and he said, “Well, my son, Jeffrey, it’s been a wonderful visit. Thank you so much for coming and please come back.” And I said, “Father, I came here to get answers, and you’ve not addressed any of my questions.” He said, “Oh, that.” And he reached into his pocket and pulled out a copy of the Lenten prayers called the “Stations of the Cross” where we follow… [long pause]. I’m sorry.
ROBIN: Take your time.
JEFFREY: I don’t know if I can finish this … You follow the life and death of Christ. [Tearful] And he sent me home.
ROBIN: This is wonderful because what you’re experiencing right now is an answer to my question about beauty and truth, as far as I’m concerned.
JEFFREY: I kind of began to understand something about suffering and resurrection, and that’s a beautiful template for understanding. So many things in our life, Robin, we’ve all been through, we’ve all been there. We were confident, we felt good about our lives, things were going well, and then some catastrophe happened, and we made it through the catastrophe and we rose from that catastrophe to experience a new victory. It’s the story of not just Jesus’ life but so many things in our life, and I began to recognize this. I didn’t have intellectual objections to the Catholic faith. What I lacked was a compelling understanding of why I was here on this earth, some story to make sense of a relationship to myself and to the world around me and to a transcendent truth. Through that simple set of prayers, I found it. What wisdom had that priest to understand I did not need specific answers to all these little annoying questions I was asking. What I needed was—I needed prayer. That’s what I needed. I needed a deep sense of internal reflection. Three years later, I became a Catholic.
ROBIN: Wow. Let me try and interpret what you’ve just said to me. There was a way in which what that priest gave you—those prayers—gave you access, let us say, to a higher truth, to the divine. And let’s say, made irrelevant the questions you thought were relevant because you had accessed immediately something so much bigger, so much more Truthful with a capital “T.” Is that a fair interpretation?
JEFFREY: That’s it. I spent three years then digging into those questions I asked, and I must have read a hundred, two hundred books or something like that and took lessons with professors of philosophy and so on. That was just a matter of housecleaning.
ROBIN: I completely understand that. As I was typing notes up for this interview—and I can’t tell you how privileged I feel that we’re having this conversation—I recalled a line of Schiller (the German poet) and the line is: “If the soul speaks, alas, it is no longer the soul that speaks.” That line is a very important one in my life because, when I came out of my religious crisis, although I landed somewhere else, I felt that it was with the grace of God that I stopped asking the questions—the violent questions—I had about God. It seems, perhaps, that that was your experience, too. And perhaps, that’s the only way any of us get there.
JEFFREY: I think it’s true. Any conversion story that’s different, that’s based on pure rationalism, I think is not true.
ROBIN: It cannot be true because of Schiller’s quote, right? “If the soul speaks, alas, it is no longer the soul that speaks.”
JEFFREY: I think that’s right. It’s funny; you have to do this deep internal reflection. I have so many friends who are hardcore non-believers, and you know, Robin, I totally understand this. I totally get it. I have no problem with it, and if they’re happy with that, then that’s fine. I’m not prepared to say that anybody is going to hell, or that they’re wrong, or anything else. We all have to find our own pathway to truth, but for me, Catholicism became that pathway for historical reasons. I don’t know. I’d like to believe I was being led by an invisible hand so to speak, but I don’t know. But it was the pathway that I found.
ROBIN: When you say you’d like to believe that, Jeffrey, would you go so far as to say you strongly feel that?
JEFFREY: I, I, I… Yes, I probably do. In fact, I don’t think it’s possible to be a Catholic and not perceive the hand of God at work in the world.
ROBIN: We’re going in to the break. I’m sorry, Jeffrey.
ROBIN: This is Robin Koerner speaking to the Jeffrey Tucker. Jeffrey, when we went in to that last break there, you just raised the fact that you have many non-believing friends and you completely get it. I believe you’ve got a few more thoughts on that atheism.
JEFFREY: I’m so glad that my non-believing friends, if they are aggressive atheists, have not had their way in the course of history. Yes, many terrible things have happened as a result of religion, and we see them even to this day. But think about how impoverished the world would have been without the amount of art that’s been inspired, the music, the architecture. Just look at the Gothic cathedrals; listen to the music of the Palestrina, or you can go back 300 years earlier and see how the chants converted to organum, and how the organum led to the advent of polyphonic music and gradually led to ever greater art. It’s beautiful the way the art of the Church sort of traces the development of the human experience and the human condition, generally, so that as prosperity began to dawn in the 16th century, you begin to see and experience that in the Church’s architecture and its music and paintings. It gives you a kind of a story of history that lasts so long. We can look back and actually trace history by looking at the development of each of these institutions. And why? All the churches’ art, the arts that have been inspired by the faith, have consisted of this desperate longing on the part of the human person to find something outside of himself and outside the bounds of time that transcends this world. There is an aspirational quality to religion that lifts up the human mind and causes us to take leaps of faith and to become ever better and to make ever more beautiful things as a celebration of God. I’m not sure that atheism can do that.
ROBIN: Thank you, Jeffrey. This has been one of the most pleasurable hours I have had on this show. This is Blue Republican with Robin Koerner. Come back next week, please.
VII. THE GREAT MINARCHISM vs. ANARCHISM “DEBATE”
(… conducted in a quiet corner of the exhibition hall at the International Students for Liberty Conference 2016 in Washington D.C.)
ROBIN KOERNER: Well, at least it starts with a smile, right? I wonder if we’ll be smiling at the end of this.
JEFFREY TUCKER: I know, right?! We’ve got a fierce debate ahead of us.
ROBIN: Have we ever had a fierce debate? We haven’t, have we?
JEFFREY: No, we tend to talk and challenge each other.
ROBIN: We get the best out of each other.
JEFFREY: That’s right. This conversation will be an extension of a conversation we’ve had in private now for a while.
ROBIN: On and off for a year or two on my radio show.
JEFFREY: Together we’ve lived through a period of great upheaval in politics, which was the year 2015 where we saw grim things happen that changed one’s perspective.
ROBIN: Well, it changed yours. You’re more surprised than I am.
JEFFREY: I know—here is the reason: because you’re a bit of a conserve-ertarian, I guess you would say. Or maybe you wouldn’t say that, but you have a grimmer view of the body politic than I have ever had.
ROBIN: Hold on. If that’s true, why are you the anarchist and I’m the minarchist? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
JEFFREY: Here’s the thing; I think there is an element of anarchism that probably exaggerates the merit of the people on the move. I don’t know if you saw the Hunger Games trilogy.
ROBIN: I didn’t.
JEFFREY: In the beginning, Katniss imagines that the problem with the world is very simple: we’ve got a government that is evil and ruled by a despot, and a whole population of people is oppressed. And that’s it. What’s the job of a freedom-lover under those conditions? Kill President Snow. But it turns out…
ROBIN: … That the devil is going to be in the details?!
JEFFREY: Right. As the movie progresses, you realize that the people who are most incentivized to achieve this aim are those who don’t just imagine a flourishing society of simple farmers, and manufacturers, and free traders—that sort of thing. They’re people with an agenda, and they have aspirations of their own.
ROBIN: ’Twas ever thus.
JEFFREY: Yes, so you say. So I’m learning. So as we get towards the end, she realizes that the real problem—the really fundamental problem—is within. It’s not just President Snow. You can deal with him. What you can’t deal with is the unexpected surprise from within your own ranks of the new tyrant with new credibility who’s seeking to upend everything about society in order to establish a new form of dictatorship. I think that this paradigm is not only just relevant to our own times—given the Trump movement, the Sanders movement—but I think it impacts on the practical strategic outlook of people like me who imagine there might be prospects for a world without the state. That’s, I think, the best way I can put it.
ROBIN: And I think that’s how we got to begin this.
JEFFREY: Right, right.
ROBIN: And talking about doing this with you, people said, “Are you going to do a debate with Tucker?” and I said that I didn’t know if it’s going to be a debate or a discussion. If it’s a debate, then I’m on one side and you’re on the other, but this discussion we’re now having has been precipitated by the fact that perhaps you’ve conceded already (you can put me right when I finish this sentence): I mentioned the quote before this show, “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is,” and a lot of the anarchist arguments one hears remind me of studying physics, where the world is idealized it, and then, based on the idealizations, you go to the proofs. A lot of the anarchic debates that I hear have that flavor to me.
JEFFREY: I understand why you would see it that way, and I’ve only begun to see it that way because to me, the idea of anarchism is an important ideal.
ROBIN: You love the beauty of it, right—because of what it says about human nature were it to be possible.
JEFFREY: I think what it says is that there’s an internal ordering mechanism within the social order itself.
ROBIN: Which I would agree with.
JEFFREY: But that’s an important insight and it began in the late middle Ages. That’s the essence of liberalism: society can manage itself. That’s a profound insight.
ROBIN: Is one way of going into the anarchy/minarchy discussion to ask whether that statement 100% true or 95% true? Is that another way of asking the question?
JEFFREY: I think it’s true given all else equal.
ROBIN: Or could you not say that a small government—let’s postulate that that could exist—could be part of a society that manages itself?
JEFFREY: I am sure we depart here because…?
ROBIN: I’m just asking a question!
JEFFREY: No, here’s the problem: a state—always and everywhere, as I understand it—is a grasping, grafting, exploitative institution, and I don’t see any other way it can be. Whether it’s a personal state of the pre-modern age, the nation state of the late Middle Ages and beyond, or the total state of the 20th century. These are distinct kinds of states, but they are all exploitative in their own way.
ROBIN: But that’s what would make someone a minarchist rather than a statist, isn’t it? We’ll say that is always true, and therefore, if this is a necessary evil, as the Founders said it was, we have to keep it as small as possible.
JEFFREY: I don’t even know why it’s necessary if it’s exploitation, graft. What makes necessary? Because it’s not actually needed to manage the social order. A state is not the thing you need in order for there to be order and law and justice. The private sector can do all of this on its own, so why?
ROBIN: So let’s go there.
ROBIN: Because my issue is: to the person born into this anarchic society that doesn’t buy into elements of the philosophical basis of the private transactions in this society—to him, any of application of enforcement, any kind of enforcement, is government, so you end up with a distinction without a difference, or a difference without a distinction. You know what I mean?
JEFFREY: Yeah, I don’t really think I am persuaded by that because I do think that there is a distinction between a state and what you’re calling a government. Of course, society always has rules. I mean, you go into a McDonald’s, and they’ve got their own set of rules. They might not be posted on the wall, but you discern them from the environment. Or a jewelry store is the same situation, or a subdivision, or a privately owned community. There are always rules, and you can’t get away from that. I think that’s completely normal. That’s different from a state. A state is a distinct thing. It’s exploitative in all the ways, I think, people understand. Yes, you need government and governments emerge out of the exchange economy. They emerge out of the normal course of life. States are kind of external.
ROBIN: Ok. So then the question becomes: can there be a government that to everybody, at all times, doesn’t feel like an unfair imposition of force? Because it seems to me that an anarchic society, you should be able to answer that question and say, “It is possible to have a society where you can have a government, broadly defined, that everybody in that society is voluntarily subjected to.” If that isn’t the case, then you have minarchism, not anarchism, at best. Am I wrong about that?
JEFFREY: Let’s take it out of the realm of abstraction and think about the greatest period of human history, which is the age of laissez faire—the end of Napoleonic wars till World War I. So we had this long period—yes, in the US we had the Civil War but terrible things that happen all the time. But for the most part, this was the age of laissez faire. Now, you had a government, say, in 1880—and I don’t know about the UK, but in 1885, say, in the US, you had a gold standard, so the government was limited. It had to balance the budget. You had no labor regulation. You had no social security system. You had no welfare state whatsoever. Importantly, you did not have income taxes, so the government could not take the products of your earning. You had no passports—perfectly free migration to and from the country. What else did you not have? There was no Department of Labor, no Housing & Urban Development, no involvement in healthcare, education, and so on and so on. So, Robin, at a practical level, the state never touched anybody. I mean, they had some play money—mostly resulting from small tariffs, and they gave that money out to their friends, and they ran their usual rackets. But for the average person, you lived in a state of anarchy, which is to say freedom.
ROBIN: But it sounds like you’re just redefining your terms now, so that you can call what I’m arguing for what you’re arguing for. Because, if you actually go back in the Anglo tradition, and you go back to Anglo-Saxon times, the Saxons brought over to England one of the most libertarian societies that there’s been in the Anglo tradition, if not the most. The reason there became a monarchy was for defensive purposes, and minarchists would say, if there’s any justification of government, as at that time, it is defense.
JEFFREY: Defense against internal threats or external threats?
ROBIN: Initially external.
JEFFREY: The French?
ROBIN: Absolutely the French!! That goes without saying! Let’s say you could have such a government for defensive purposes, which was as I say, even in the Anglo tradition, how we got one in the first place…
JEFFREY: It’s a fascinating history. I think anarchists are cheating themselves by thinking entirely abstractly without considering this important history that it was the aristocracy that gave birth to what we call liberty today.
ROBIN: Oh, that’s interesting. The aristocracy gave birth? Because I might say that the monarchy came out of the people for defensive purposes. Are you saying…?
JEFFREY: I’m just saying the aristocracy, embodied most fully in the monarchy…
ROBIN: What period are you talking about?
JEFFREY: Well, English history I don’t know so well, but let’s say, in Italian history, the period of the Renaissance.
ROBIN: Ok, so much later.
JEFFREY: You have the emergence of an aristocratic elite that believed that you had to protect the institutions, like for example, the Medici banking empire, because that was a major source of prosperity for the people. But people did not understand it, and there’s always a problem of fanatics on the loose, driving the Medicis out of every country. “Let’s kill the usurers. Down with the vanities!” Laissez faire gives rise to a lot of population upheavals and prosperity, and people resent it. From age to age, at any particular time, there’s always fanatics on the loose and they’re willing to do anything to get rid of the source of life and beauty that’s emerging in society. They want to kill it. So the aristocracy has always had a much longer-term view. Let’s protect these institutions because in the long run, they will benefit everybody—even if you don’t understand it right now. The Medicis are better than Savonarola in the end.
ROBIN: Really, I think you’re talking about, probably, the justification for the House of Lords in England.
JEFFREY: Yes, it’s the same sort of situation.
ROBIN: … the Lords Temporal and the Lords Spiritual…
JEFFREY: It’s interesting to think about this, Robin, because—let me put it this way—I’m beginning to understand better the basis of liberal republicanism—of the sort that I think animates your ideological vision, and I am sympathetic with it.
ROBIN: Increasingly so…
JEFFREY: Increasingly so.
ROBIN: … Because of where you started this segment, which was with reference to 2015 and Trump and all of that.
JEFFREY: I know, right?! So you’ve got the masses on the loose. Is this going to lead to more liberty or less? That’s the issue.
ROBIN: And we talked about Trump and his brown-shirts. “Tear down the state!” is what you’re saying. The anarchist instinct is to tear down the state.
ROBIN: Tear down the state—but then what are you left with?
JEFFREY: But then what are you left with! It’s a dangerous sort of “let’s-burn-the-world-up” kind of attitude that comes with an unsophisticated sort of anarchist impulse that’s just against the prevailing order, without consideration for what could come later. And if you think about it, Robin, I can’t—maybe you can help me with it—are you familiar with any revolutionary situation anywhere in history where the masses were on the move to overthrow an existing establishment that ultimately resulted in more liberty rather than less? That is a profound question.
ROBIN: It is.
JEFFREY: If you can’t say “yes,” there’s a problem.
ROBIN: I believe it’s a critical question. Something that comes to mind is, in the Anglo tradition that we are in, we haven’t had a French Revolution or a Russian Revolution. There’s something about our tradition, and when I say “our,” I mean very broad strokes here—inasmuch as America came out of Britain…
JEFFREY: You’re not talking racially, you’re talking historically.
ROBIN: I’m talking historically, yes. I guess there’s a part of me that’s concerned about philosophical political arguments, or abstract political arguments, that don’t seek to understand that difference because I think that differences also has got to be bound up in what you’re talking about.
JEFFREY: It’s been years since I’ve read Acton on the French versus the American Revolutions, or Burke for that matter. And part of me, and I don’t know if you feel this too, I have mixed feelings about the French Revolution. I don’t have any sympathy for the old regime, that much anyway, and I understand why it happened, and I probably would have been one of them really. I don’t have any sympathy for royalism as an ideology. I think it’s reactionary and really absurd.
ROBIN: That’s interesting, because it’s been said that every nation, every society, is a monarchy. It’s just a question of to what extent, because there’s always someone …
JEFFREY: I’ve never heard anybody say that but you but okay. [laughter]
ROBIN: Probably by the end of this little discussion, I might even remember who said it! So question is: to what extent? And if you allow that someone’s always going to hold a disproportionate amount of political power, and ironically, look at America now: the Executive wields more power than… you have to go back to James II—you have to go back to the 17th century in England, to find a king that wielded just once the kind of Executive power that Obama wields every day.
JEFFREY: Or the Trump campaigns for every day!
ROBIN: He wants more! You see what I’m saying?
JEFFREY: And the masses cheer!
ROBIN: There’s some genius. I didn’t know that we were going to discuss this, but I think there’s some genius—maybe accidental genius about the British Monarchy (we’ll talk about that one because I know about it). Because it says, “Okay, this thing is going to be there anyway. People are always going to want to have a monarch—if not with a capital “M” then with a small “m”. So we have our President with more monarchical power than the British Monarchy. Let’s actually acknowledge it, rather than pretend that we can get rid of it. Let’s put a silly costume on it and a crown, and then make sure it has no political power at all, and let’s actually separate whatever that thing is—whatever instinct has to be harnessed—let’s separate that from actual political power. Looking at the American presidency that was set up…
JEFFREY: … that’s genius…
ROBIN: …in opposition supposedly to tyrannical monarchy and now is more of a tyrannical monarchy than the monarchical tyranny from which it was birthed. It begs a question, right?
JEFFREY: There’s always mixed motives on this. You can say that Washington wanted Roman robes. There’s a history here. He was not a liberal republican in any sense of which you say.
ROBIN: It speaks to preserving institutions, I guess, and something of human nature that I think you …
JEFFREY: Here’s what troubles me about a full-throated minarchism: I think it underestimates the problem of power generally. And people who aspire to these positions don’t normally … freedom is not the first thing on their mind.
ROBIN: That can be said equally in an anarchic society. How then does anarchic society protect itself from those impulses?
JEFFREY: I don’t know.
ROBIN: Right, so, wow. That’s huge! Because you have to know to say, “I’m an anarchist.”
JEFFREY: I love anarchism, so long as it stays anarchism.
ROBIN: As opposed to?
JEFFREY: As opposed to an anarchism that collapses into tyranny.
ROBIN: But then you have to show it’s self-sustaining.
JEFFREY: That’s the problem, and we have very few historical examples of this. Actually, colonial America is not a bad example to point to. And when we were talking earlier about successful revolutions, I’m certain that some listener out there is thinking, “The American Revolution.”
ROBIN: Yeah. When I said “in the Anglo tradition”, that’s the obvious one.
JEFFREY: But I don’t think that’s such a good example actually because this Revolution occurred… Look, there’s plenty of injustices I’m sure that King George, I’m sure he as a complete lunatic and a fool, and Americans didn’t like this tax or that tax whatever, they didn’t like English tea and monopoly and so on. And also, driven by a kind of revolutionary fervor from their enlightenment. My beloved Thomas Paine … and it’s great. But the frenzy that led to that without a clear sense of what comes after, actually gave rise to a number of really regrettable things. One was a horrible war—horrible for everyone—and hyper-inflation, draft, shooting of deserters, the tarring and feathering of English loyalists—every violation of civil liberty. This was ghastly. You can’t look at the American Revolution and say, “Yes, that was awesome!” It was horrible. It was horrible for everybody. And then it ends, and we had a few stable years where there’s Articles of Confederation. We were kind of thriving and people were going about their business, local despotisms and things that don’t really matter and whatever. And then you had a ruling class begin to coalesce, and they began to gather and say, “Don’t we really need a big powerful central state? Don’t we want a big document that empowers us?” So we were suspicious of it—the anti-federalists. We were like, “You guys are just plotting to reimpose what we just got rid of,” and they said, “No, we’ve got a Bill of Rights. Here’s the rights that you get.” And we were like, “Hmm, okay. We can go along with that.” And that’s how we got a friggin’ Constitution and then who’s in charge? The Constitution comes about in what? 1787 or something? Who’s in charge? War generals, bond racketeers from the war, large land holders—it was the ruling class that emerged out of the war itself that becomes the new state. The awesomeness of that limited government lasted only a handful of years because by the turn of the 19th century—the 1790s—we had a federal law against criticizing the President, and we had to have another revolution in the form of Thomas Jefferson, ascending now to the throne to bring us Liberty. He didn’t do such a good job of it. Instead, he became a Pox Americana: “Let’s acquire some more territory from the French and expand the borders.” And then it was all over. So you want to tell me the American Revolution was an awesome success? We can’t go back and do counterfactual history. But what if the American ruling class had worked carefully and in a diplomatic way with the English crown and come to some sort of peaceful compromise? I mean, might we be actually freer?
ROBIN: Maybe. Maybe I’ve just been sent by the Queen to get back the colonies? We’ve seen Trump. “Sorry, guys, you gave you a couple of hundred years…”
JEFFREY: I know, I know, right?!
ROBIN: “… We’ve got to take this back now.” You certainly can’t recount your factual history, but yes, that can be a lot of fun. One thing that’s worth saying about that, perhaps, is that Americans tend to have this idea that America was set up in opposition to this tyrannical “other” …
JEFFREY: I know, and the rhetoric is extraordinary.
ROBIN: It’s 180 degrees wrong—that history.
JEFFREY: Oh, that history, yeah.
ROBIN: There was a French philosopher that said that “part of being a nation is getting your history wrong”. I actually think that is deeply true. Here we are at the International Students for Liberty conference doing this, and I really do think that America’s belief about its foundation actually gets in the way of its protecting its liberty.
JEFFREY: I think that’s so right.
ROBIN: Yes? We talk about the American Revolution: it was similar in a way to the Civil War, the English Civil War, which obviously is in the same tradition, in that it was revolutionary, but then, actually wasn’t a Revolution in the sense that people usually use that term. The revolutionaries, the Founders afterwards, were conservatives: they were conserving a tradition that they saw the political establishment …
JEFFREY: I think that was the intention, yes, of the American Revolution; it probably was.
ROBIN: And so there was kind of this falling back to what was best about what was before, one might say. It was a Revolution in the technical sense that if you have a wheel and you revolve it, it goes back to the beginning. It doesn’t go 180 degrees. You know what I mean?
ROBIN: It revolved. Whereas the Russian Revolution—no. The French Revolution—no.
ROBIN: So there is some…
JEFFREY: And the Revolution in American politics that’s supposedly taking place today—no.
ROBIN: So let’s talk about it because you started there. What’s taking place…?
JEFFREY: To go back to the Hunger Games thing: we’ve got bad Obama at the top, and then the people and the movement: “Oh, down with Obama.” And that sort of thing. You’ve got the front runner of the Republicans. He is standing up saying: “we need it limit libel protection from the media; we need to be able to jail reporters who say false things about the President”, for example. It’s reverting back to the worst of American tradition in a way. It could lead to the end of free speech.
ROBIN: Is it the worst of American tradition today? Or was it even worse, then?
JEFFREY: Well, let’s see: we had speech controls in World War I, and we had speech controls in the 1790s, so there’s a long tradition of American… But here’s the thing, so Trump also says, “Let me have your iPhones. Let’s collect all your iPhones; I’m going to look at your selfies and your texts.” And you’d think people would say, “Down with you, tyrant!” No, on the contrary. They love it. They’re cheering him. Wild applause. The more despotism the better. “The more tyrannical you talk, the more we love you.” Pay attention. Pay attention to what’s going on out there. There’s a real danger. And Americans? This is a funny country. We’ve had red scares in this country for a hundred years: “the commies are coming.” It keeps happening again and again and again. We are unprepared for the anti-left, brown-shirted despotism that we’re facing now as a very real prospect. We are unprepared intellectually and unprepared psychologically. We don’t even see it when it’s right in front of us. Hayek said this about Germany. He said ten years before Hitler took power, nobody even imagined, and it’s fascinating because Hitler didn’t have a lot uncritical fans. He just had a lot of people who thought, “Well, he’s the best. We’ve got a lot of problems to deal with, and he seems like the one that’s best able to deal with it.” The same thing we’re saying about Trump. This is how a country collapses into the total state. It’s just that the paradigm’s there…
ROBIN: Are you scared? Are you really scared right now?
JEFFREY: More so than I’ve ever been in my life. Robin, I find myself—and I try not to be this way—I’m alarmed at the extent to which people, especially libertarians, are unprepared to recognize the threat that’s in their midst. I’m not sure if you’ve seen this or not, or discerned this, or if it alarms you, but many of the people who over the last ten years have considered themselves part of the Liberty movement are now being sucked into this vortex. I keep asking myself why.
ROBIN: The answer to that, surely, is that we retrofit our political views to what we’re culturally comfortable with.
ROBIN: So if you want to be part of the movement—it might be called the Liberty Movement—what you really want to be is anti-establishment. It’s different. To have some means to experience yourself as more intellectual from the next guy. You could pin your colors on the Liberty mask ten years ago, and actually, you think you believe that ,but it’s a cultural affinity: it’s not actually an intellectual one.
JEFFREY: I wonder if you’re right about that. I’d have to think about that. It’s a very interesting thing. And the other question is really…
ROBIN: That’s certainly what’s going on with Trump and his supporters, surely. It’s a cultural affinity.
JEFFREY: Yeah, he’s like us.
ROBIN: Yes. Yes. A lot of those folks who are voting for him, let’s say who voted for George Bush, were, when Bush was campaigning, saying they supported a very different politics. Remember, Bush didn’t campaign as he governed. So the views change with the perceived moral authority. You connect, you identify with, the moral authority more in a cultural way rather than in an intellectual way.
JEFFREY: It lures you into kind of the worst possible way of thinking. It’s simple the way it happens. For example, Trump stands up and says, “Down with the liberal media,” and we go, “Yeah!” “I hate the friggin’ New York Times because they’re horrible people,” and we’re like, “Yeah, they’ve been horrible to me for years. I can’t stand that paper.” He says, “We really should shut them down,” and we’re like, “Yeah! Let’s shut ’em down.” He says, “We really should have a rule against saying the kind of things that they say.” And we’re like, “Yeah! Pretty much.” Then, the next thing you know, the pillar of liberalism is gone, knocked down—free speech.
ROBIN: Because people want to feel what that feels like to say it and hear it …
JEFFREY: I know.
ROBIN: They’re not building their politics out of…
JEFFREY: … out of fundamental principles.
JEFFREY: It’s a politics of loathing, hatred, and resentment and backlash.
ROBIN: Something I teach about in my Political Communication seminars is that judgment and justification are completely different processes in the brain. How we form our judgments does not follow how we justify them after they’ve been formed. And we justify them using principles and logic and facts. But we form judgments for many different reasons: group identity reasons, sub-cultural reasons…
JEFFREY: You know, Robin, I can’t be you. I can’t think like that. I just…
ROBIN: It’s just an observation.
JEFFREY: No! It stems of a kind of cynicism I’m just personally incapable of…
ROBIN: No, no, no… No, it doesn’t at all.
ROBIN: I just look at people, and I read books, and I go: “Aren’t people I interesting?” And they are interesting. This is why people can sell things. They can sell things because they know how people’s minds work. I don’t have a negative reaction to that, just like I can’t have a negative reaction to E=MC2—it’s just the way things are. So we could do good or evil in the context of all of this.
ROBIN: And “all of this” includes human nature.
JEFFREY: So I would like to see an anarchism that’s heavily informed by your sophistication on these matters.
ROBIN: Ahh, this is awesome common ground.
JEFFREY: See what I mean? [laughter]
ROBIN: Let’s do it! That’s the kind of anarchism I can…
JEFFREY: But the anarchism that’s overly simplistic about history and about the structure of the political order and the dynamics of the formation of states and their stability and their progress in the future, I think is probably not a very useful anarchism. I feel like that’s where I’m going with …
ROBIN: So what will it mean when Jeffrey Tucker says to me next year at the Students for Liberty Conference 2017 says, “Well, I am an anarchist,” what will he mean then? Because it’s going to be something that’s different from what he meant back in …
JEFFREY: I think my anarchism really comes down to a burning conviction within myself that people are capable of ordering their own lives.
ROBIN: Which I share.
JEFFREY: But that’s really what it is. I think that it’s an important insight. I mean, the reason…
ROBIN: … But that’s a huge step from acknowledging that and saying, “Therefore, a society can be built without a government.” I mean, there’s a million steps between…
JEFFREY: The problem with minarchism is quite often isolates the locus of responsibility for the existence of civilization within a band of thugs that happen to be running a government.
ROBIN: Hold on. “The responsibility for the existence of civilization”?!
ROBIN: Who’s putting that at the door of government?
JEFFREY: I think that’s what I read in Hobbes. He’s like: unless you have a state, everything’s falling apart.
JEFFREY: Maybe my reading is wrong but that’s what I’ve always understood for minarchism.
ROBIN: No, you’re right. I see where…
JEFFREY: Look, my mentor, Ludwig Von Mises—I adore him—his biggest fear was a society without state, and I think he was wrong about that.
ROBIN: Oh, that’s interesting. I see what you’re thinking.
JEFFREY: Why do good things happening around? Mises was too quick to say “because the state establishes property rights and keeps justice, and keeps things orderly, and keeps violence at bay.” I think it’s wrong! I think the reason why things are groovy is …
ROBIN: … is because we’re groovy people!
JEFFREY: Yeah! Because we figure out ways to get along. That’s what my anarchism is.
ROBIN: OK, so I’ve pressed you to pin down your anarchism so I now need to clarify: I’ve been using monarchism very loosely. I think you’ve been referring to monarchism as a kind of actively held philosophy, something to actively move towards. That’s not what I mean. I was just meaning a concession that I don’t believe that I’ve heard a coherent argument that convinces me there is a practical society that is stable that works with no government … So I’m just saying because I can’t get that far, I’ll just use this word “minarchy” instead.
JEFFREY: I understand… and I just want to make you feel uncomfortable here just really quickly.
ROBIN: Just to be fair!
JEFFREY: Yes! Here’s the problem: every time we get a state, it grows.
ROBIN: It is in the nature of the state to grow. There’s no doubt.
JEFFREY: And what do we do about it? We have not come up with any kind of technology, any kind of document, any kind of system of representation or voting—you name it—that’s been able to stop this problem. What do you do about this?
ROBIN: I actually see that it’s interesting that, given everything you’ve said about people, I think what you do is what turns me on, really, which is: you have to educate the “We the People” to take their responsibility to keep the government in its box.
JEFFREY: And what is that? Is that cultural?
ROBIN: “Inform their discretion”, as Jefferson said. Is that cultural? Yes, because everything is. Culture precedes politics. It’s an educational thing! It can be done, but what we’re educating is about the very same human nature. We’re just talking about the human nature, aren’t we—that you were talking about earlier…
JEFFREY: So what’s interesting about what you just said, is that that would be true under anarchism too. So we are both seriously, deeply convicted about the need for a population that loves liberty.
JEFFREY: And if you don’t have that, whether it’s anarchism, minarchism, whatever, it’s going to become very bad. It’s going to become tyrannical. It’s going to become despotic. And whether anarchism or monarchism …
ROBIN: So you’ve made the whole discussion completely moot!
JEFFREY: No. I think it’s a very important thing for us to agree about, because this is more than enough to occupy the whole of our lives. My anarchism initially stemmed from the sense of the impossibility of a limited state. I see from our discussion here today that you could easily come back to me and say, “ok, you’re right, you can’t limit the state, or at least we’ve never been able to limit the state in any successful way.” But neither have we been able to establish a stable anarchism. So that cuts both ways.
ROBIN: I like that you said that, because, exactly, it does. The impossibility of a “limited state”: it’s impossible if you imagine that that limited state has to be static in its limit, rather than in tension with the people pushing back on the state. Maybe there’s a dynamic equilibrium. Maybe that’s the best we can do.
JEFFREY: Yeah. And if you read The Federalist Papers, that’s what they claimed they were doing. Whether that’s true or not I just don’t know.
ROBIN: And actually, if you read the Declaration of Independence, it kind of sets it up that way.
JEFFREY: Yeah, it does, right… So the problem is the same. The problem is the same: whether it’s a small state or no state, you’ve always got a threat of tyranny right around the corner, and the only way to combat it is with an educated, dedicated population that wants to preserve rights and liberties for the whole of society. And without that, all bets are off. With it [whispering] maybe it doesn’t matter that much.
ROBIN: Maybe the debate is resolved.
JEFFREY: Yeah, maybe that’s it! But I’ve been thinking a lot about. Do you do those mental experiments where you say “what if I lived in the English world? What if I was in Florence in 1599?” I do those mental experiments with myself. “What if I was in 1885 and I had an iPhone?”
ROBIN: You’d rule the world! You’d be a dictator! You wouldn’t even be doing this “liberty” stuff!
JEFFREY: That’s true. That’s true!!
ROBIN: But there wouldn’t be much on the Internet, because there’d be nobody else there.
JEFFREY: Looking at a Google search and nothing comes up … Except for the articles you wrote!
ROBIN: It would be like the NSA gets its back door and wipes it all out.
JEFFREY: You can downright dominate Google! Type an article, Google it, and you’d be there! Here’s the point: I think that I would feel free. I think I would feel free! I mean, if my income wasn’t taxed, if I can leave the country without a passport, if I can make a contract with my employer to work at any rate I wanted, as many hours as I wanted, if I can become a doctor or a lawyer, just anything! I could sell anything, start any business at any time with no regulations, nor rules. If there wasn’t a social security payroll tax, or an educational system that was dominated … I would feel, in every practical way, free!
ROBIN: That makes a lot of sense. Would trade here now, for there?
JEFFREY: Institutions, I would. Not Technologies. And I’d like to believe that in 1885, I would still be a wild anarchist. There wouldn’t be a whole lot to complain about. There’d be the periodic invasion of the Philippines or something like that. But, you know what I mean, from a practical point of view, you would experience freedom in the ways in which in our lifetimes we never have. And that’s it and that’s a beautiful thing. And I think it’s a viable thing to hope for and shoot for. As I say, the state of 1885 was racketeering, it was grafting; you had infrastructure, you had scams going on all over. That’s what you get with governments—always. I think about that generation.
ROBIN: Then again, I would just say, when I hear the AnCaps talk about whatever mechanisms they have for enforcing whatever they’re going to enforce based on the property rights that apparently everyone is going to share a conception of, which is going to make this whole thing work: I bet you would get in those institutions—because they would be institutions of the kind—you would get the same things. Because you have the same human nature.
JEFFREY: You’re certainly never going to erase from the human mind the reality of the state any more than you can erase from the human mind the reality of religion. The idea of the state is baked into our experience—into our multigenerational experience of what it’s like to live a civic life. The idea of the state will never go away, and you’re right, there would always be somebody out there ready to create one.
ROBIN: What I was saying is … There are all of these books being sold around here about what you can have to do things that the state does instead of the state, and how we can set up all these voluntary institutions, private courts.
JEFFREY: Yeah, yeah, but they all exist.
ROBIN: What I’m saying is that they would then be institutions of the anarchic society, and you would still be battling essentially the same problems because you would still have forms of corruption…
JEFFREY: I think there is corruption all around you everywhere. I mean if I ordered a drink from the bar, it’s very possible that they’re going to overcharge me for it.
ROBIN: So that problem is now attached to the state because we have a state. And if we some other thing, it would attach to that.
JEFFREY: Let me fall back on Hayek here.
ROBIN: Always a good fallback.
JEFFREY: Yeah right. He has a very profound criticism of the state. The problem is it’s a kind of uncorrectable institution. It’s too institutionalized. It takes rules and embeds them in systems of violence that are impervious to change. They don’t evolve with the social order. They get stuck and then they pull us back, and that I think is very powerful… And I think ultimately that is my most beloved criticism of the state—because it’s what I see all around us—the state is holding us back. Whereas if you had private rules—and next time you come to Atlanta, I want to take you to my favorite private community which is very publicly accessible. They have rules, but their rules change. They say they have rules against gang wear (gang-related clothing), which they do. And there are a lot of gangs that come in and go, “You know, we want to shop here. Just cause we dress in these cool clothes that doesn’t make us bad. Can you do something about this?” They could change it overnight and they would because they’re adaptable systems. Anarchist systems, private rules are adaptable to change and the evolution of the social order.
ROBIN: The reason that that’s a good example, and I agree, is because you can leave it. To me, that’s what this…
JEFFREY: Yes. You can shop elsewhere.
JEFFREY: “We’re buying our shoes over here. We could be buying them from you.” And they’re like, “Hmm.”
ROBIN: Yeah, so your participation is voluntary. But if you were a child who becomes an adult in that community, and that’s the only community you have access to, and you didn’t sign up to whatever, then for you, it’s government in effect. It’s government in effect, and that’s my point. I just don’t think you can get around that, even in the abstract. That’s what defeats an anarchist society: you can have one only if you can leave it.
JEFFREY: We are talking about really a geographical limit on the range of the state, which I think is about the best limit to the government you could ever have.
ROBIN: That’s true.
JEFFREY: It’s geography.
ROBIN: But now we’ve got a world where you can go from one land under one government only to another land under another government. You can’t just go across the border…
JEFFREY: There’s an important way in which the borders do limit the state. If you think about states today, how are they limited? One way is that they can only deal with the physical world because all they can do is force you to do stuff, so they can’t deal with the digital world very well. The second way is—thank God for borders in a sense—not because they keep people out or prevent you from leaving, but because to some extent, they restrain the range of jurisdiction of this thuggish band that claims to be ruling us, and that’s an important limit on the state. If you go back far enough in time to, say, the early Middle Ages in Europe—with small city states, with little local despots (they’re all jerks, but whatever) …
ROBIN: You can choose your jerk! You can be between jerks if you want.
JEFFREY: Yeah, right. And so the principality is like this hotel.
ROBIN: Right, exactly.
JEFFREY: That’s the firmament that gave rise to the idea of liberty in the first place, and we overthrew it. It’s fascinating. As I talk about this, I’m remembering something Hayek said about Germany after World War II. He wrote a wonderful article that nobody’s paying any attention to, where he wanted to see Germany become again just an accumulation of small city states. He thought that was the best way to protect the freedom of the German people and to prevent the rise of another Hitler. And probably to this day, that is the best available protection we have for human rights and liberties is massively decentralized but, importantly, competitive…
ROBIN: Yes, yes.
JEFFREY: …competitive institutions.
ROBIN: Wow. We’ve done pretty well here.
JEFFREY: No! We’ve done…
ROBIN: We could do this for another hour or two, but I think we probably have to stop.
JEFFREY: We do.
ROBIN: Because I know you have something to do. You have another debate with.
JEFFREY: I know!
ROBIN: It’s just like, “I want to keep you!”
JEFFREY: I know, I know. Listen, I have to thank you because we’ve now sort of been together more or less as talking partners for a couple years now. And we’ve lived together through all these upheavals.
ROBIN: That’s true.
JEFFREY: And Robin: you have learned from them, and I have too.
ROBIN: Yes, and I have learned from you.
JEFFREY: Well, no. We’ve both learned from the world around us.
JEFFREY: We’ve learned from the world around us, and I think that whether you’re an anarchist or a minarchist libertarian, conservative—it doesn’t matter—or liberal, or leftist. You’ve got to keep your eyes open.
ROBIN: Kierkegaard said that “if you label me, you negate me.”
JEFFREY: Kierkegaard said that?
ROBIN: Yeah. We can meet as people rather than as “___ists”, can’t we?
JEFFREY: You remind me of a great debate tactic I’m going to use tonight. Anytime I say anything, I’m just going to say, “as Kierkegaard said,” and it’ll work!
ROBIN: You’re welcome, Jeffrey! This is a pleasure.
JEFFREY: Thank you, Robin.
ROBIN: Let’s do it again next year.
JEFFREY: Okay, okay. Awesome. Thank you, my friend.
ROBIN: Thank you.
VIII. JEFFREY’S TWO BIG PERFORMANCES AT FREEDOM FEST
ROBIN KOERNER: Welcome to Blue Republican Radio with Robin Koerner. I’m going to have a lot of fun today. This is a show that was arranged at the shortest notice of any show I’ve arranged in the two years or so I’ve been doing this. Thanks to the absolutely marvelous bowtie-wearing Jeffrey Tucker. Jeffrey, thanks for doing this with, literally, what? Ten minutes’ notice?
JEFFREY TUCKER: Right, but it works. It preserves the spontaneity of life itself.
ROBIN: Oh, I love it. Of course that’s exactly what I was trying to do. [laughs] This is marvelous. There are a lot of things that I thought I’ve wanted to talk to you about in the last show. When was it that we last spoke? A few months ago?
JEFFREY: That’s the good thing about election seasons; there are so many bad things, but the good thing about it is that it gets you thinking about ideas.
ROBIN: Right?! Well, you know what? You must have been approached with this a million times in the last month or two, but let’s start then with your…—“rant” isn’t quite the right word, but your Freedom Fest commentary from the stage about Trump. I’m not starting there just because it’s the obvious thing to talk about. There’s something specific that’s been going around my head, kind of growing, for the last few months. Certainly, since we last spoke about Trump I asked you, if you remember, who’s more dangerous—Trump’s brown shirts or Sanders’ red shirts, and you said—you made a very good case for it—Trump’s brown shirts. I was very inclined to agree with you. Now, of course, we don’t have Sanders’ red shirts; we have Clinton’s whatever color shirts her people wear.
JEFFREY: That’s a tough one, yeah.
ROBIN: Given that my guy won’t win—cause I won’t be voting for Trump or Clinton—I’m not sure who scares me more, but there’s something interesting about the Trump phenomenon that I want to run by you. I know you’re going to have a really interesting take on this idea that’s been kicking around my head. So before we do that, what happened at Freedom Fest, and why am I asking you about it?
JEFFREY: Well, that was a strange thing because, first of all, I had so much going on at Freedom Fest. I think I ended up doing about nine or maybe ten presentations. One of which was a song and dance routine—a literal song and dance thing that I did at the dinner.
ROBIN: I have to say: I was right by the stage because I was there under the auspices of a major sponsor. I had a wonderful view of you, and I actually did turn to somebody next to the table, and I said: “Oh my god, I like him even more now!” [laughs]
JEFFREY: I’m telling you that was the hardest performance of my entire life. That’s the hardest thing I’ve done in my entire life.
ROBIN: I’m not surprised. It was incredible!
JEFFREY: It was so tricky, and I wasn’t very good. You’re sweet. I wasn’t very good, but I tell you: singing in front of an audience popular music designed to entertain people is so hard because everybody is just sitting there eating dinner, right? And they’re like, “Oh, who’s this guy on stage? He’d better be good; it’s his job to entertain me.” And looking out over a thousand people and suddenly realizing that you have to sing, which is not something—I’m a decent singer, I’ve sung a lot but mostly liturgical music and that kind of thing—not entertainment music. I’ve spoken a lot, and I’m kind of good at speaking, so you think it’s not that big a deal to combine the two, but it is vastly different because it becomes your responsibility to engage people in an entertaining way in a very difficult thing, which is singing, remembering all the words. Most of the time, I was in a state of a terror that I might forget the lyrics, actually, because I just had never done it before. You don’t know how you’re going to respond on the spot, so I sweated out that one so hard and I now have the highest respect for any pop musician more so than classical musicians who have music in front of them and they have a script that they just go through, right? But pop musicians: there’s an improvisatory element to it that has to engage people at every step, and people will lose faith in you and stop believing in you if you make any missteps. I was unaware of what I was going to be confronting when that thing happened.
Here’s the other thing: it’s something you have to practice to get good at, but the only way you can get good at it is by doing it in front of others, so you have to potentially make a fool of yourself. It’s the only way. I’ll get to the Trump thing in a second, but let me…
ROBIN: No, this is good.
JEFFREY: It is really interesting to me. I sweated out. The whole conference I wasn’t even paying any attention to my talks. I gave a gazillion talks and I don’t even know what I said. All I was doing was thinking about that stupid Saturday night performance. Before I went on stage, I looked at my hands: they were like pools of sweat. I mean, like, I could have wrung them out and squeezed them and have drops of a waterfall. That’s how terrified I was. I thought I did a really good job…
ROBIN: You did.
JEFFREY: But I watched the video afterwards and do you know I found the most interesting thing while watching myself. I thought, “I look stiff and uncomfortable.” Although when I was singing I thought I was kind of loose and fun. I watched it again, and I realized why I didn’t know what to do with my hands. My hands were sort of languishing at my side, and every once in a while I’d lift them up, but then they would go back to my side and I looked a little bit like a Frankenstein [monster]. Just that stiff with my hands. So I thought, “Well, what is it that popular singers do with their hands?” So I got curious, right? So I started watching some Britney Spears and some Justin Bieber and some Rihanna and so on. It turns out, there’s this whole science to what you do with your hands while you sing. Like, who knew? They’re very careful with their hands—they’re up and then they’re down and then they’re sideways and they’re making a side motion and when they go up, they open up their hands and it’s above their head, or they’re pumping their fist. They’re always doing something cool with their hands.
ROBIN: It sounds like to do the hands thing right, you have to do big things with them deliberately.
ROBIN: Big and deliberate with the hands.
JEFFREY: And I had no idea, and I have watched music videos all my life. When do you ever notice, “Oh wow, this person has awesome hand movements” ? You don’t notice that. It’s just that to me, it’s a very interesting illustration of how, like, getting good at something is doing it, and you sometimes arrive at counterintuitive things you didn’t know about. Nobody ever warned me, “Oh, you’re singing in front of an audience? Let me give you a heads-up—you gotta figure out what the hell you’re going to do with your hands because if you don’t you’re going to look like an idiot.” Nobody ever said that to me. I never knew that; now I know it. That’s how you learn, I guess.
ROBIN: Since you raised this intriguing topic, and with three minutes left of the first segment, let me just ask you another thing about it, which is how is it—maybe you don’t know the answer to this—but how is it that you were asked to do that and why did you agree to do it?
JEFFREY: It’s my fault. Last year, I saw some people performing on stage, and after a martini or two…
ROBIN: Oh, yeah. Now the answer is already clear.
JEFFREY: I went up to the organizers and said, “Hey, I could do that. Why don’t you put me on stage next year?”
ROBIN: [laughs] All of my sympathy for you, Jeffrey, is washed away now.
JEFFREY: I practiced so hard. I can’t even tell you. I practiced for months for that thing. There’s a funny moment that came the night before the performance. So my singing partner who was Naomi Rockwell comes to my room, and we start practicing. And we’re practicing, and she realizes I’m not very good, and it’s because I kept forgetting the words to things. She looked at me, and she said, “Jeffrey”; and she’s Australian—“Jeffrey, I’m so sorry. We could have been so good. This could have been so great.”
ROBIN: Oh, no!
JEFFREY: And this is a devastating comment.
JEFFREY: And I said, “Naomi, don’t say that to me. That’s heartbreaking. You can’t say that!” So then of course that made me more terrified.
ROBIN: I would think so. So she might be good at singing, but she’s not very good at psychology.
JEFFREY: [laughs] Or maybe she is because I spent the whole next day…
ROBIN: Fair play. [laughs] Wow, yeah, wow. I mean, I’ve got to say: watching you, I was just blown away. Probably because I was so surprised, but you carried it off. You didn’t look to me like you were flailing. I mean, I’m no expert. It seems to me like you did a decent job. I was like, “How many strings does this man have on his bow?”
JEFFREY: But I learned something very important. I learned about learning, and I still have to write my article about this because, as I say, it was the hardest thing I can remember doing in my entire adult life. Absolutely terrifying.
JEFFREY: Yeah, absolutely terrifying. It was so difficult, so hard, and so scary. Now I look at these pop singers, and I’m in awe of them. Like ALL of them. They are doing the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life, and they’re doing it every day for a living. At any point, any concert, any song, any verse they could ruin their career with absolute public humiliation that would destroy their market value. That is a high wire act.
ROBIN: That’s nicely put. It is indeed. And you’ve brought us to about 15 seconds to the end of the first segment. Trump can wait. Frankly, Trump needs to wait, so that’s good. We will come back to him after the break. I’m Robin Koerner speaking to Jeffrey Tucker. This is Blue Republican Radio, and it is a pleasure to have you with me as always.
ROBIN: This is Robin Koerner. This is Blue Republican Radio, and I’m doing one of the things I enjoy most in the world, which is talking to Jeffrey Tucker. I was going to say talking all things liberty—but not quite yet, although we’re about to.
JEFFREY: We’ll get there.
ROBIN: Or, actually, is it all things tyranny? One or both; either or both. Thank you so much for talking about that amazing high-wire act that you did at Freedom Fest. It was remarkable. You did blow me away.
JEFFREY: I just didn’t know, I didn’t fully understand, what I was getting in to. It’s amazing. I hope to write this up because I want people to develop greater appreciation for what it means to be a popstar. We are such the critics, aren’t we? We are so wicked. We’re just like, “Oh, that guy used to be good, now he sucks. I don’t like that person, or she’s terrible. She’s got a terrible voice.” This is what we do, and capitalism puts us in this position—every last one of us—of being these severe critics of these people who have devoted their lives to delighting us.
ROBIN: That’s right, and now in the modern world with the technology, we sit anonymously and/or privately, behind our screens and with our faux usernames, we just lay into people knowing there will never be any repercussions, as if it’s going to have no effect. It can bring out the worst in us.
JEFFREY: But really, this phrase, “the peanut gallery,” which I guess is the idea: I always picture an opera house, and there’s the gallery up on the top and some people are just snacking around on peanuts, watching the players down below trying to entertain them, and they’re like, “Well, that’s okay. That’s funny. Haha. That was funny. Boy, that was terrible.” The whole world is the peanut gallery now. It’s so fascinating. It’s an absolutely fascinating turn of events that we’re all in this position. I just want to explain to people, if I can, in an article at some point just what is involved in that. I have performed 500 concerts with liturgical music, given 500 speeches, and I thought it was not going to be a big deal. What is the difference? Why is it easy to give a speech where people are waiting to be instructed, or taught something? Okay fine. A Liturgical event where people are waiting for yet another performance of Pergolesi Stabat Mater, or whatever the thing is. Okay, so we know what to do. Popular entertainment music is different because it’s your economic obligation to somehow crawl inside people’s hearts and souls and bring them delight. Like, how do we do that to a thousand people simultaneously? That is really an intimidating job.
ROBIN: Would you not say, though, that when you’re giving a speech, or giving a liturgical music performance, in a way you’re also doing that, but this was different because in all those other performances that you’ve given, whether spoken or song, you know the people in the audience are there for the content you’re about to deliver. Whereas at Freedom Fest, they were there for some other reason. There were there to have dinner, having listened to lots of political content, but you weren’t there delivering political content. You were there giving them something they haven’t actually specifically signed up for.
JEFFREY: That might have something to do with it. You might be right that that has a lot to do with it, but it’s also something about the performance of entertaining music—probably the same way if you were a comedian. It’s your job to make people laugh and people withhold their laughter. You have to dig it out of them—probably—because I’ve never done comedy, so I don’t really know. Every time I’ve made people laugh, it’s always accidentally, but you do feel an intense obligation to illicit a certain something out of people that people are very reluctant to offer up, unless you push the right button. You really don’t have any access to them except at a spiritual level.
ROBIN: As you say that, I can’t help but think: be glad that your first attempt at that was to an American audience and not a British one because I think the Americans are so much more open. Americans want other Americans to succeed. Generally, there’s a kind of kindness in the way Americans open…
JEFFREY: This is funny you say that because I must say that was generally the response I felt after that performance: it was kindness. [laughs]
ROBIN: [laughs] I daren’t ask actually. But it was good. I mean, to me as a non-professional, it was good. It was kind of the highlight of the evening, I’ve got to say, but you know what? That might be because I’m a Jeffrey Tucker fan for other reasons, so I was delighted; I was surprised. You know what I mean? Wonderful stuff.
JEFFREY: I had imagined in my mind that we would have blown everybody away. You always think this ahead of time, and then I got off stage and I think Naomi, or both of us, asked the stagehand or something: “How did we do?” And the guy says, “It was…it was… it was fine.”
ROBIN: “It was fine?”
JEFFREY: And that’s not what you want to hear, and we both looked at each other and we said, “Oh my God. What went wrong?” And we said, “I don’t know. Do you think something went wrong?”
“I can’t tell; I think maybe something went wrong.”
“Maybe I think it did, maybe it didn’t. I don’t know—I’m not sure.”
We were doing this for a long time afterwards.
ROBIN: Oh, God.
JEFFREY: Trying to size up whether we had done the right thing or not. It’s just so interesting: our egos are so fragile—and this is a universal thing. It’s really true. We’re terrified at some level—everybody—and everybody has to admit it—of our critics. We try to have thick skin but not really. We all live this way on Facebook: you post something and it gets a hundred likes and one person says, “This is the dumbest article you’ve ever written.” And what do you remember? You remember the hundred likes or the one comment from the troll? That’s what you remember—that hurts. I don’t know. We’re always as producers in a free society, where people are free to judge us, in a position of extreme vulnerability. We really are… That’s true whether you’re an entertainer, or you’re a mattress-maker, or just a content-writer, or you work at an ice-cream shop. Part of the human condition is that a major part of our sense of our personal value is something that can only be contributed by other people. So we’re necessarily always part of a community, and our self-perceptions—for everybody—are highly contingent upon the response that we can illicit from other people. We’re all connected in that way, and it imposes all kinds of mutual obligations and informs the human esthetic of life so heavily.
ROBIN: This is something … It’s kind of like a divine dichotomy at the heart of capitalism, I would say—that a system based on individualism and individual self-interest turns out to be the one in which we can develop the most as part of a community and in relationship with others. I think sometimes, on the one hand, I support an individualist political philosophy because metaphysically—spiritually, if you like—I believe We’re All One. On the surface, that’s a dichotomy or paradox, but it’s a divine dichotomy, which means it’s a deep truth.
JEFFREY: It’s really true, and if you think it’s not true for you—because some of your listeners might be hearing this and going, “Yeah, that’s not really true. My self-worth is mine alone.” You think that, and then you find yourself in a situation of complete isolation where you’re not in a position to extract value from others or give value to others, and everybody who values you is external from your life and has no impact on you. I’m speaking of a case like being in jail or something like that, or being in solitary confinement. That enacts a kind of metaphysical transformation of our character. It does: it changes who we are, and it can happen so fast—like within a few hours probably. That’s how connected we are; that’s how dependent we are and how mutually dependent we are.
ROBIN: (We’re going in to the break—the second break.) The statement that our egos are fragile and we’re mutually dependent does seem to be a wonderful segue into a discussion of Donald Trump, wouldn’t you say? It’s almost perfect.
This is Blue Republican Radio. This is Robin Koerner speaking to Jeffrey Tucker, and we’re going to be back in just a few minutes after this break.
ROBIN: So you inadvertently gave me a great segue into, I guess what is going to be now the main political top of this chat. I thought there might be a few, but since we’re halfway through the interview—because we do that thing we always do, talking about other great stuff that comes up, maybe we’ll be a little more focused now. So, Donald Trump… Just give the listeners your precis at what happens when you declare on no uncertain terms what support for Trump meant from the stage of Freedom Fest and the response that you’ve got, or the viral video of that has gotten since. Then there’s something I want to ask you about the cultural context of the rise of Trump that we haven’t discussed before.
JEFFREY: Oh, about the interplay between the reactionary aspect of it—the blowback. Yeah, I want to talk about that, but just quickly about that Trump thing. It was a little awkward for me because I really was just going from thing to thing to thing, and I suddenly found myself on a stage and they said: “Okay, it’s time for you to do this debate about Trump.” I was like, “Debate about Trump? Okay. Whatever.” And they plopped me down on that chair and really the moderator said, “And now…” Well, the first one to speak was Wayne Allyn Root. Now he gave this big case for Trump that sounded like a case you would make for Gary Johnson or Ronald Reagan or somebody like that. He’s going to cut the government; he’s going to reign in the establishment; he’s going to do all these wonderful things for us. And I just sat there thinking: “I can’t believe I’m hearing this nonsense.” I didn’t know where the audience was on the question. The moderator points to me and says “Okay, Jeffrey Tucker.” I got up and you notice, from that clip that’s now famous online, I started by saying: “You want Trump to cut… You believe that Trump’s going to cut the government. Let me tell you, Trump…” … and then I got myself whipped up and I said, “He’s not going to cut the government. He’s not going to cut spending. He’s not even going to cut your taxes. He’s not going to cut it.” And then I saw the resistance started happened. Then the boos started happening, and then the yelling started happening, and then I got the adrenaline rush. And you’ve never seen me like that, right? I’m not usually that way.
ROBIN: That’s true. Although, I’ve got to say, I don’t think—some people said you came off…that you were angry, and I didn’t actually feel you were angry. I don’t think it was angry; I think it was fervent and impassioned, certainly uncompromising, but it didn’t strike me as angry, really. Did it feel angry? How did it feel?
JEFFREY: I was desperate to try to explain to people who this guy was and what tradition he came out of. Oh, rollback to the other discussion. You’ll notice that I watched my hand movements in that presentation, but my hand movements were perfect—perfect! Hands out, I was embracing, I was pointing—the hand movements were flawless. So there’s something about the way you move your hands that’s connected to how compelling and believable the content of what you’re delivering is. I didn’t have to rehearse that. I had no plans what I was going to say at all. I had no script in my mind. Even when I started talking, I had no idea what was going to come out of my mouth—that’s how spontaneous it was. Then I think it lasted three minutes over boos, trying to explain to people that there is a larger tradition that Trump’s a part of. And I think I said something like, “He’s part of a movement that is nothing but brown-shirted fascism.”
ROBIN: That was the line… which made me, when I watched it, I remembered our earlier discussion about it where we actually…
JEFFREY: … We talked about it in a calm way, right?
ROBIN: Yeah, yeah we did.
JEFFREY: But, boy, that riled people up, and it was interesting because the debate went on. It’s fascinating to me how the pro-Trump side is just making things up. It’s like that dictatorship complex. They did this for Napoleon, for Bismarck, obviously for Stalin, for Hitler, for Mao—every dictator. A good dictator… It’s funny they present themselves as the answer to all your problems—whatever those are. Whatever you dream of happening… Obama was the same way when he ran. Whatever your dreams and your highest ideals and your aspirations for a society—those become embodied in this one person. He’s going to carry those forward into a new stage of history and cause them to be realized. You have to sort of suspend your connection with reality to follow one of these guys. And clearly, that’s what people were doing. It was amazing to me.
So I saw my job, in that little debate, as just introducing the elements of reality to what was going on here. I tried to talk about what Trump actually said, what he’s actually going to do. It put me in an awkward position because I feel like I was shattering people’s dreams, really.
ROBIN: There’s been a big change in American politics since we last discussed matters like this, Jeffrey, which is Clinton got the Democratic nomination. We now know who Trump’s opponent is going to be in the main parties. So let me just ask you this. It’s a basic question, but I want to know Jeffrey Tucker’s answer: are you more scared of Trump or Clinton?
JEFFREY: I think your answer would be similar to this one: it depends on the day. I can see plus sides and downsides to both results. One of the reasons I’m especially, I guess, more terrified of Trump is precisely because I think he might be more successful. He’s more compelling. His program has a populist element to it, and he’s reaching a constituency that’s usually ignored. They’re going to feel themselves newly empowered in a way they haven’t been in something like half a century. I don’t know what that looks like in practice.
ROBIN: How—because I think this is going to bear on what I want to ask you about the cultural context of Trump—how would you define, or specify that constituency that Trump is activating?
JEFFREY: They imagine themselves to be this alienated, largely white bourgeoisie. That I think sums it up.
ROBIN: Bourgeoisie? It’s interesting that you say that. You think these guys, or these people self-identify as being kind of a higher class than the mass of those around them?
JEFFREY: Ok, so. by the “bourgeoisie,” I’m really using that as a term referring to the middle class. In other words, not the elites but not the workers and peasants. Not the peasants. All demographics of his support show that they’re largely… well, they’re almost 100% white and dominantly male. But typically not an educated professional class, which I guess you could include among the bourgeoisie. But whatever they mean, really the core of his support is the upper strata of the working class that is socially aspirational.
ROBIN: Yes, yes.
JEFFREY: So they imagine that their children are going to do better than they are doing. They have high hopes that they’re going to send their kid to … maybe it’s going to be the first generation to actually complete a college degree.
ROBIN: Now what’s the significance… I think you said “white bourgeoisie,” did you not?
ROBIN: What’s the significance of “white”?
JEFFREY: Because there’s a perception… This is going to be hard to say, and I’m not sure how it’s going to come across on the radio, but there’s a perception that’s really very deep in our history that imagines that white people are the owners of this country and this culture. That’s very embedded in the sensibility of who we are. Yes, we talk these pious gems about we’re a nation of immigrants, we’re a diverse society, blah, blah, blah… But yeah, in the end, whites have always been on top. That fear of displacement and the anger at being ignored is palpable. It’s not that Trump supporters hate non-whites—it’s not true—but they do have a sense of fear of displacement, fear of marginalization, and anger that dominant aspects of political culture seem to be disparaging their culture and what they’ve built and what they’ve done. There is a blowback here, like, it’s about time that the people who have made the primary contribution to building civilization as we know it are being pushed aside and insulted, especially at high levels of academia and in popular culture and all the rest of it. There’s an element of racial struggle here. You can’t ignore it, really.
ROBIN: So what if I were to say—only partially playing devil’s advocate—that I think their cultural disaffection (I’m not comfortable with this like a specific definition of who the “they” is at this point) but this cultural disaffection is legitimate. That some of the support for this political authoritarian, which I think we can broadly agree Trump is, of the right, is coming out of something that I have begun to realize I think I feel—enough that I can see what this is about, which is a leftist cultural authoritarianism, which means, because I’m privileged, educated, white, raised white, whatever, I have to leave my privilege at the door—whatever that means—and my thinking, my views, are inherently less valuable, less relevant, to the problems we as a society are facing, because I can’t claim victimhood. I can’t claim membership of a preferred victim group, as identified certainly in the academy, certainly by a lot of mainstream culture—alternative comedy, for example. It’s like we have to be in denial of that part of white culture, call it our Anglo tradition, that did build America to a large extent. And if we’re not in denial—if we’re not guilty about it—then we somehow are at fault just by inadvertent participation.
And enough’s enough. Look at what happened to Milo on Twitter. Look at the fact that the colleges—if you read and listen to Jonathan Haidt—are between 10-to-1 and 50-to-1 leftist. I mean, these are astonishing numbers, and at some point, it’s got to give. So the big claim—and I’m going to hand this back to you—but the big idea that I have is that, again paradoxically, the support for a political authoritarian on the right is in some ways coming out of a libertarian rejection—libertarian by instinct—of cultural authoritarianism on the left: “I’m culturally repressed, so I’m going to come out whichever other way I can, and unfortunately, the only place I’ve got to go is a political authoritarian, but I’m sick of the cultural oppression, so that’s all I’ve got. I’m going to go for it,” which makes [support for Trump] less racial.
JEFFREY: Yeah. Although I think denying that racial element is a mistake just because I think identity politics is something that’s always just barely beneath the surface.
ROBIN: I’d go further than that. I would say in some way, Jeffrey, all politics are politics of identity, and in fact, I say that in my seminars a lot. It’s just a question that that doesn’t always mean black, white, male, or female. It can just be more broadly: “Do I trust your motivations? Can I instinctively get how you experience the world?” If so, I identify with you. We have some commonality.
JEFFREY: So let me just say I think that, first of all, everything you said is valid as far as it goes, and I do think that that is part of the legitimate basis of Trump support. That sense of alienation from the cultural elite. That sense of dispossession.
ROBIN: And of being condescended to, I would say. I would go that far.
JEFFREY: I think it exists and it can be legitimate, though it is also dangerous. I don’t think that that really accounts for the whole of it. For one thing, it’s a little bit puzzling because—think about what you said. You said: in the university, the left is running everything and shoving all this third world literature down our throats and telling us how oppressive white people are and everything. There’s a very small percentage of Trump supporters that ever went to college. They’re not exposed to this elite culture and universities. This is not a problem.
ROBIN: Well, they’re not exposed to it inasmuch as they’re not participating in it, but all of the cultural content that comes through their TV screens, let’s say for example, comes from these places. To an extent that doesn’t reflect their lives and their culture—hence the alienation.
JEFFREY: I think it’s half legitimate in the sense that you describe. It’s also half illegitimate in the sense that it’s not the case that just because one group has made a massive contribution to building a society that therefore they own the culture and the society. People are naturally resistant to diversity insofar as they sense that it’s been shoved down their throats. For example, you watch these Trump rallies, right? There’s a Trump rally, there’s protesters, and you’d think: “Oh my God, these people just hate each other’s’ guts.” But you put those same people at a shopping center, or in a food court at your local mall—they’re going to love each other. Everybody is happy in a commercial setting. There’s nothing that causes people…
ROBIN: Right, that’s true.
JEFFREY: …to inherently disagree with each other, or find conflicts with each other except to the extent that you introduce politics to it. When there’s a state in control, then people start beating each other up.
ROBIN: For sure.
JEFFREY: I think that it is politics that’s responsible for a lot of this. Now, if you’d just let me continue for a second: on the question of blowback, I think that that is just undeniably true. The advance of the left, especially in the Obama years, we have a very conspicuous leftist cultural imperialism that is really inescapable. I think it’s there, but you also have to remember the other side—if you can just go back a little bit further and remember that the cultural left is also a blowback against right authoritarianism that predated that.
ROBIN: Right, yes.
JEFFREY: Only a hundred years ago, Robin, at all levels of government in every state in this country one hundred years ago, there was an exterminationist plot alive in the land—eugenics.
ROBIN: Hold on, Jeffrey, so we’ll come back because we’re going in to the last break, but I’m going to come back and let you expand on that point in a moment.
ROBIN: Jeffrey, you were making a really great point as we went in to the last break there. Please just carry on.
JEFFREY: I’m digging into a little bit of history that nobody is alive to remember, but it was only a hundred years ago that we had this eugenics plot alive in the land. Much of our laws and institutions that we now live with were shaped by that, from minimum wages to zoning policies to business regulations—a lot of which were designed to keep people, the races, apart. Our immigration laws from the 1920s were specifically constructed on a eugenics basis. Even our environmental regulations were heavily informed by eugenics, which is a subject for another time. It’s really weird why that’s true. This created this kind of—I guess you can call it—this sort of rightist authoritarianism a century ago. Eventually it creates the left, the cultural left, which was largely born after World War II in response to… You think about something like the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That really shocked a generation of intellectuals. Here you have this repeating pattern: the right creates the left, the left creates the right, and so on it goes in endless ways of mutual recrimination. Who started it? It’s a chicken and an egg problem. In the end, I really do think that you can’t build a gigantic state like we have in this diverse society without engendering these sorts of wars to the knife. It’s just going to happen. A large state like this is far more successful in a homogenous society. We have a large state, especially a welfare and redistributionist state, a regulatory state, like ours—people are going to be struggling with each other to control it. That’s why it gets worse in political years. To me, the answer is not for anyone to win this struggle, it’s to stop the war.
ROBIN: Hear, hear.
JEFFREY: Stop the war. The only way we can do that is by reducing the size and reach of the state.
ROBIN: We’ve come pretty much to the end of the show, and that’s a perfect ending to any of my shows. That’s what liberty is about, and that’s a great exposition of why we need it. Thank you, Jeffrey. We will do more of these. Thank you again. Thanks for being with me—it is a pleasure.
JEFFREY: My pleasure, Robin. It was wonderful to see you again.
About the Authors
Robin Koerner is British born, and recently became a citizen of the USA. A decade ago, he founded WatchingAmerica.com, an organization of over 200 volunteers that translates and posts in English views about the USA from all over the world.
As a member of the faculty network at Foundation for Economic Education, a political and economic commentator for the Huffington Post, Independent Voter Network, and other outlets, Robin may nevertheless be best known for having coined the term “Blue Republican” to refer to liberals and independents who joined the GOP to support Ron Paul’s bid for the presidency in 2012 (and, in so doing, launching the largest coalition that existed for that candidate).
Robin’s current work as author of the book, “If You Can Keep It”, a trainer and a consultant, focuses on bringing people together across political divisions, with a view to winning supporters for liberty, rather than just arguments. He is driven by the conviction that more unites us as people and as Americans than divides us as partisans, and if we can find common ground and understand the forces that really drive political change, then “We the People” will be able to do what the Founders implored us to do—maintain our natural rights against power and its abuse. As he says, people and their well-being are the only legitimate ends of politics.
If you are in the U.S., you can obtain a personally signed copy of his book at www.ifyoucankeepit.us, and if you, or a group with which you’re associated, is interested in becoming more effective in communicating political ideas in a way that changes resistant minds, find out about the Art of Political Persuasion at www.RobinKoerner.com.
Jeffrey Tucker is Director of Content for the Foundation for Economic Education. He is also Chief Liberty Officer and founder of Liberty.me, Distinguished Honorary Member of Mises Brazil, research fellow at the Acton Institute, policy adviser of the Heartland Institute, founder of the CryptoCurrency Conference, member of the editorial board of the Molinari Review, an advisor to the blockchain application builder Factom, and author of five books. He has written 150 introductions to books and many thousands of articles appearing in the scholarly and popular press.
He created the first commercial service of online book distribution that published entirely in the commons (The Laissez Faire Club) and he was an early innovator in online distribution of literature during his tenure as builder and editor of Mises.org from 1996 until 2011. He created the first live classroom in the liberty-oriented ideological space and assembled the official bibliography of famed economic writer Henry Hazlitt, a project that included more than 10,000 entries. Early in his career, following his degree in economics and journalism, he served as research assistant to Ron Paul at his private foundation.
Jeffrey Tucker has been a two-time featured guest on John Stossel’s show, interviewed on Glenn Beck’s television show, spoken at Google headquarters, appeared frequently on Huffington Post Live and Russia Today, been the two-time Master of Ceremonies at Libertopia, been featured at FreedomFest and the International Students for Liberty Conference, the featured speaker at Liberty Forum three years, keynoted the Young Americans for Liberty national convention, has spoken at many dozens of colleges and universities in the U.S. and around the world including Harvard University and Boston University, has been quoted in the New York Times and Washington Post, appears regularly in Newsweek and many other popular venues, and is in constant demand as a headline speaker at libertarian, technology, and monetary conferences around the world.