After the “libertarian moment” of Ron and Rand Paul’s presidential campaigns, it’s already been a few rough years for libertarianism in America. The rise of Trump, the ever-increasing reach of the state, the technological advances, and the disruptions brought by the pandemic have redrawn the scenario.
Is there hope? What’s the way forward? To put things in perspective, we interviewed Jeff Deist, president of the Mises Institute, one of the world’s foremost libertarian think tanks. Here’s our conversation:
Governments have taken advantage of the pandemic to expand both government spending and interference in the lives of their people. They’ve taken advantage of people’s fear to offer them supposed certainty in exchange for giving up ever more individual freedoms. How to reverse this trend and how to convince those who are afraid not to give in to the temptation of a state that controls everything?
Jeff Deist: The security or protection we supposedly got from our federal government from Covid-19 was an illusion. In other words: if the federal government had done little or nothing, we’d probably not be any worse off with respect to Covid. We may be better off.
The whole thing reminds me a lot of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, in New York City; because in the days following that, just like the days following what we started to hear about Covid, it wasn’t that I was worried about terrorism, I was worried about what government was going to do.
Governments love to take advantage of a crisis, they love to increase their control over us, and even now, as I’m sure you see in Mexico as we see in the United States, they don’t want to give it all up. They want to maintain mask mandates; they want to maintain distancing and quarantines, and the ability to immediately reimpose these restrictions if there’s a new variant of the virus.
We have to understand that the supposed problem is really just an excuse. And I think markets and individuals could have dealt with Covid in the sense that we could have allowed younger people to go out and work, and some of the in-person work, we could have had middle-aged people perhaps doing some amount of work and that we could have kept older people a bit more isolated to protect them, and it could have worked itself out, probably in much shorter time.
When it comes to trying to get people to understand that government just wants power and tan it’s not really about the virus itself, I think you have to appeal to logic, to appeal to the facts, and ultimately you have to appeal to people’s interests: Do they really want to live like this? I mean, Americans love visiting Mexico, we love to come to Mexico City, we love to go to Baja, we love to go to Puerto Vallarta. Are we going to give this up? Over a 1% [death rate] virus? It’s absurd, and I think it’s the absurdity, I think that’s our greatest strength, just to highlight the absurdity of it all.
Yeah, and we’re seeing the data that shows that, for example, states like Florida, which had fewer restrictions, fare pretty much the same as states like New York or California, that were basically turned into giant prisons for millions of people, with no end in sight.
Jeff Deist: Yeah, it’s unfortunate, and “prisons”, I think it’s the right word. I’ve been very fortunate personally because I live in Alabama, which is adjacent to Florida. We’ve been relatively open throughout. I have family in California; they were literally in their house, for weeks, and weeks, and weeks, and only sometimes went out to the grocery store.
It’s a very strange way to live, and there’s never been a time in human history when governments were so unconcerned about health itself. I mean, the best approach to this would have been to tell people to go outside, get some sunshine, try to exercise. Yet we never heard any government, to my knowledge anywhere in the world, tal about boosting your own immunity for this thing.
That shows you that they want to be in control of whatever the cure is or whatever the mandates are, whatever the restrictions are. It’s not really about health at the end of the day.
Speaking about control, I’d like to ask you about these new trends: According to many politicians and intellectuals, the advances in science and technology, particularly in machine learning and behavioral science, open the door to a state that intervenes more effectively, and that is able to plan centrally without repeating the mistakes of the past. What is the libertarian response to this new authoritarian temptation?
Jeff Deist: Well, I think it’s true. I think technology, AI, the Internet of Things is definitely a double-edged sword. We all love the convenience, we all the ability to have instantaneous communication: some people can lock their door from their phone, adjust their refrigerator from their phone, do that sort of thing.
That sounds great, but we have to understand that all of this technology is available to the government as well to surveil us. It is very frightening because in the United States, we have a particularly evil government agency called the NSA, and the NSA literally sweeps up data and collects what they call metadata from everything you do. If you have a newer car, let’s say from 2014 or 2015 those cars are very easy to track. Obviously, your iPhone or your Android phone is going to make you traceable.
There’s evidence to believe that your phone can record you even when it’s turned off. And some of this new technology we’re introducing in our homes, like Ring, which is a little camera around your doorbell, or the Alexa units that you may put in your house. All these technologies make it easier and easier for government to spy on us.
When we think of our money, what we think of as money is mostly just electronic blips now, and usually you’re using your phone or a debit card or whatever to purchase things. Mexico still has a little more of a cash economy, but that’s changing; and in the United States is very much a digital economy, which means that if You do something that the government doesn’t like, it becomes a lot easier for them to shut off your ability to live, to purchase things.
So, I’m very frightened by it. There’s no stopping technology; the question is whether we can stop government.
Yeah, and whether people will understand this and stand against government before it’s too late.
Jeff Deist: I think that’s true, and I think we have to find something within ourselves. We have to be our own regulators. For example, with Covid: If people simply went out en masse and went to work, refused to wear masks, refuse to socially distance, refused to stay off the highways; very quickly you would see that the politicians begin to backtrack on all of their mandates and restrictions, because there’s still a lot more of us than there are of them.
So, I think that each one of us as an individual has an obligation to do what we can in our own little group of friends and family to push back.
Speaking about politicians, I’d like to ask you about Donald Trump has been one of the most controversial and influential political leaders of this young 21st century. He’s changed the political map and the public debate, for better or worse. What was his impact on the libertarian movement?
Jeff Deist: It’s hard to say. He’s definitely taken some of the energy away from the libertarian movement, which was already dissipating after Ron Paul. It seems that we’re living in a very illiberal time; especially the progressives on the left want to control speech, want to control property, want to control markets, want to control corporations: they call it “stakeholder theory”.
Libertarians don’t have much answers to all this, because they’re still stuck on this idea of “well, private companies can do what they want”. Meanwhile, Twitter and Facebook are de-platforming people. So I think it’s a tough time for libertarianism. I think it’s the nature of political movements; they have ebbs and flows.
Right now, the mainstream left, and the mainstream right in the West are not very interested in political Liberty, and as a result, it seems like libertarianism is not very effective in countering the narratives, because today everything is about narrative, everything is about media and in building sort of a story.
We have to tell our own story, but our story is a little harder to tell, because it doesn’t just require soundbites. The left can just say “we want everyone to be equal” or “we need to fight racism” just these really simple emotional appeals, whereas for people to understand sound money, free trade, entrepreneurship, whatever, this requires a little more thought.
So, our problem is that we have a logical political philosophy, when most people want an emotional political philosophy. And that’s the gap we have to breach by being better storytellers.
What is your diagnosis of the current state of the movement?
Jeff Deist: I think it’s not Good. Trump took a lot of energy out of the room, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a libertarian impulse on the right. There are a few figures like Rand Paul, Thomas Massie, but on the left there seems to be a very deep illiberal spirit with regard to speech, civil liberties, basic fairness, and certainly with regard to economic matters.
And on top of it all, the left isn’t even good on war anymore. Joe Biden is back in town, and [he says] “maybe hey we need to bomb Syria” [and the left says] “let’s not criticize him too much, because he just got in office and we need to beat those republicans in two years”.
So, it’s a tough time, but I think the huge silver lining is in the energy, which is moving towards decentralization politically. In other words: do we really have to persuade everyone? Or do we need to uncouple from them? And those are two different questions.
Covid-19 showed us: not only were supranational organizations like the UN or the World Health Organization unable to project any authority, but even within countries, in the United States, for example, various state governors took different approaches; and within the states, there were different mayors in cities taking different approaches.
Actually, when you look at the whole world, when you look at South Korea’s approach versus Sweden’s. You mentioned to look at Florida’s approach versus California’s. That’s exciting, because we’re starting to see that maybe we shouldn’t all be forced under one-size-fits-all centralized rule. I hope that decentralization, including in the political sense, is the big direction of the 21st century.
Where will the libertarian movement go in the coming years? What’s the future of the libertarian movement, and what are the keys to make it grow? What are your perspectives on the movement in general and the role of the Mises Institute in particular?
Jeff Deist: Well, it’s a very tough time. I think libertarianism in general has adopted what I would consider left-culturalism as its main force, and I think that’s a huge mistake. I think libertarianism should be focused first and foremost on economics.
Without economics you really have nothing, because economics isn’t just the financial side of things, economics doesn’t mean that you ignore social issues. Economics is an understanding of human action, of why people do what they do. And I think it’s been a huge mistake for libertarianism to get away from not only economics, but civil society.
As a result, [we haven’t understood the importance of] the intermediary institutions between the individual and the state, whether that’s the family, whether that’s God for some people, whether that’s religion, whether that’s civic and social institutions. I think libertarianism has been very hostile to civil society over the years, and wanted us to be the sort of individualist actors.
Honestly, libertarianism, especially in the United States, has been exceedingly hostile to family and religión, and that’s just not how human beings are wired. Human beings are, in a word: group animals. Scientists are starting to understand that a group should be of about three hundred people, whereas in the United States is 330 million, so that’s not going to work.
However, the idea that we’re all just these atomistic individuals, and that that should be the focus of everything within libertarianism, and that we should be antagonistic towards any sort of groups, I think it’s been a mistake.
And you know me somewhat. We’ve discussed this at length, I come down more on the right side of things culturally, and I think that if we want to have less government externally, we need more internal governance, and that requires a belief system apart from the state. That requires some sort of adherence to tradition or morality, or religion, or God, or whatever it might be. And I think this is a big split within libertarianism itself.
In recent years, we have seen a growing interest of the Mises Institute to reach out to the Spanish-speaking public. Could you comment on these efforts and the results they have obtained?
Jeff Deist: I’m excited about it. The three big languages in the world at this point are: Mandarin (Chinese) which is a brutally difficult language for westerners to learn, and obviously Spanish and English.
There are various groups in Central and South America and Mexico, which have been very active, there’s Mises Hispano in Spain. We decided to create Mises.org/es/, and we’ve hired a team of interpreters, and they’re pumping out not only a lot of our day-to-day content, but also they’re working on some of the bigger books by Rothbard, Mises, Hazlitt, Hayek, etcetera, which are not yet in Spanish. Many of them are, not all of them.
It was really fascinating for me. I was able to spend a little time in the library at UNAM (Mexico’s national university) in Mexico City, which, even by American standards, is a vast university. I went into the main library; it was really exciting to me to go see “what do they have in terms of Mises? What do they have in terms of Rothbard?”
And, you know, there wasn’t a lot, even in a university that vast there was not a lot of Austrian economics content. So, we want to rectify that.
There’s a huge amount of interest out there, not just in Austrian economics, but in understanding “how the West got rich”. For instance, in China, in Asia, in the Middle-East, people are just now starting to have the ability to engage in some level of entrepreneurial capitalism, or business owning or whatever.
In Latin America, you have examples of huge successes, and you have examples of huge problems, like Venezuela. So, people really want to know, without all the cultural baggage, without all the politics, just “how does wealth happen?”
And what makes me angry and sad is that in the West, in places like the United States, we just take it for granted; we think “in the United States everywhere you go there’s a Starbucks, or you have an Iphone” and that these things will continue no matter what. And that’s not true. There are periods in human history where societies went sideways or even backward.
As we develop a younger generation of socialists in this country and across the West, there’s a significant threat of losing that. So, without appeal to politics, culture or tradition; just with a simple appeal to materialism, there’s a tremendous amount of upside for putting our content into Spanish and then maybe someday into Mandarin and other languages.
We’re excited about it. We hope that people will visit Mises.org/es/, and I believe, based on the Alexa rankings, that Mises.org/es/ is the highest-trafficked Spanish-speaking libertarian or Austrian website on the planet.
Finally, what is the greatest threat and the greatest hope for libertarians in America and the rest of the world?
Jeff Deist: It would be simplistic to just say that the greatest threat is the state. I think the greatest threat is what underlies the state, which is all of us and our complicity. Whether you go along with what they’re asking you to do, grudgingly; or whether you go along with what they’re asking you to do, happily, doesn’t much matter at the end of the day.
If you go along, they continue to gain power, and they continue to try to dominate society, which is what governments always try to do. They always try to grow and consolidate their own power. So, I would say that our own mindsets and our willingness to obey, that’s really the underlying threat.
As far as places for optimism, places that give me hope, I think people want to be better off. There’s an awful lot of energy out there which is pent up. If you look at people in the most dire conditions: let’s say a prison, or a concentration camp during war; even there you see capitalism, you see markets, people trying to engage in free speech. So, it’s really difficult, I think, to suppress the human spirit for betterment.
Seven billion people on the planet get up every morning, and most of them want to improve their lot in life, and I think that’s what we have to hope for and tap into, and let’s hope that we can use technology for our side, to outpace the state, whether that’s decentralized platforms, whether that’s encrypted messaging where we can still talk to each other all around the world, whether that’s bitcoin.
Whatever it might be, let’s just hope that the entrepreneurial spirit moves faster than the state’s appetite to control it.