The Great Antidote

David Boaz on Liberalism and the Continuing Progress of the Enlightenment

March 08, 2024 Juliette Sellgren
David Boaz on Liberalism and the Continuing Progress of the Enlightenment
The Great Antidote
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The Great Antidote
David Boaz on Liberalism and the Continuing Progress of the Enlightenment
Mar 08, 2024
Juliette Sellgren

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David Boaz is a distinguished senior fellow of the Cato Institute and for over more than four decades, he was the executive vice president. He has written many books, including The Libertarian Mind and Libertarianism: A Primer. Today, we talk about the historical origins and importance of liberalism and rehash the discussion of what to do about it and the current disillusionment with it. 

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Send us a Text Message.

David Boaz is a distinguished senior fellow of the Cato Institute and for over more than four decades, he was the executive vice president. He has written many books, including The Libertarian Mind and Libertarianism: A Primer. Today, we talk about the historical origins and importance of liberalism and rehash the discussion of what to do about it and the current disillusionment with it. 

Never miss another AdamSmithWorks update.

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Juliette Sellgren 

Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition. Hi, I'm Juliette Sellgren and this is my podcast, the Great Antidote- named for Adam Smith, brought to you by Liberty Fund. To learn more, visit www Adam Smith Welcome back Today on January 19th, not only am I back at school, but I'm excited to be inviting David Boaz onto the podcast for the second time. Lucky me and lucky you. The first time we talked about libertarianism, it was a conversation based off of his book, The Libertarian Mind. But today we're going to have a conversation inspired by his peace in The Unpopulist, which is Substack, entitled to Save the World Fight for Liberalism. He's a distinguished senior fellow and a longtime executive vice president of the Cato Institute. Welcome back.

David Boaz 

Thank you. Glad to be here again.

Juliette Sellgren 

So I have a question for you, and I asked it to you a while ago when we talked the first time, but maybe your answer is different this time. Maybe there's something else you want to share. What is the most important thing people my age or my generation should know that we don't?

David Boaz (1.23)

I wonder what I said last time, but I think what I would say now is it is important for people your age to understand how incredibly lucky they are. Incredibly lucky to be born around what- the year 2000 and also incredibly lucky to be born in the United States. And I think people don't really understand how much more comfortable and longer our lives are than they used to be by one estimate. We're 30 times richer than our ancestors around 1800 now, who can even know what that means? But what we know is most of the things that are most valuable in a way to college students these days, computers and smartphones and all the other technology that I don't even know are really new. I didn't have those when I was in college. I didn't have 'em when I was middle age, but we can make it, but we can go further than that.

We can say a generation or two ago, we didn't have television three generations ago, we didn't have radio. I'm not sure exactly what would be the equivalent, but four generations ago we didn't have dentistry. So our lives are just so incredibly more comfortable and healthier than any generation in history. So don't lose sight of that and don't go around feeling things aren't good. The economy's terrible. Everything we want, we don't have, I got lots of criticisms of the government and we can talk about those, but in the big picture, this is the best time in the history of the world to be alive.

Juliette Sellgren (3.24)

I love this response. So well characterized, but also recently I've been thinking a lot about this fact, and I think this is something we'll kind of get into as we continue to talk, but I've been thinking a lot recently about how I used to be like, oh, just cheer up and it'll be good because the world is good. The world is great. But recently I've been starting to think of it more as a warning, which I don't know if you necessarily agree with, but especially with a lot of the narratives that have been circulating. I think this piece of information is important not only because it's true and it helps on the individual level, but it's really important because it tells us that the institutions at play are the ones that have led us here, and that if we change that because we're convinced that this fact isn't true, that could lead to disastrous consequences.

David Boaz (4.28)

Yes, that's right. And it's not even necessarily that you're convinced that's not true. It's partly that we don't understand how important these institutions are that have brought us to this happy day. And so people say, Hey, I don't think anyone should be hungry. Hey, I don't think anyone should be homeless. Well, neither do I. And there's no need for people to be hungry and homeless if we doubled down on the institutions of capitalism and individual liberty. But whatever side we take on homelessness or whatever, we should remember that we're way better off than people ever were in the past and we should make sure we don't screw that up.

Juliette Sellgren 

And so, when thinking about the piece that you wrote, which of course we're going to continue to get into the contents of it and more, I want to talk about what kind of led you to write it at the moment you did, because this lesson and this fact has been true for such a long time and it only keeps getting better every next moment. We're more prosperous than the one before, but why write this right now? What about the current moment in maybe world, but particularly in America that led you to write it right now?

David Boaz (5.55)

Well, because I see that liberalism, which is the general term for an idea or a society based on rule of law, cosmopolitanism tolerance, private property, free markets, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, all those things. Liberalism has been the basic operating system of the United States for a couple hundred years and it has spread to more countries in the world, certainly western Europe, countries like Australia and New Zealand, but increasingly even in other continents; there's more of an agreement on generally a private property market-based economy generally freedom of speech and freedom of religion and so on. But now suddenly we have what seems to me, not just arguments within liberalism, but arguments that are really illiberal that argue for things that would erode liberalism as an operating system. Some of that comes from the left. I mean, it's come from the left a lot. The communist and socialists were definitely illiberal.

They did not want a liberal society, but also people on the left who are less in favor of free speech than they used to be. We used to think when I was young, conservatives are pretty good on free markets, but not on free speech. And liberals are pretty good on free speech, but not on free markets. But liberals have gotten worse, or at least people who are called liberals these days who might call themselves progressives are more censorious in the name of diversity and equity and hate speech. They want to censor lots of speech. They want to cancel people for engaging in wrong think and wrong speech. On the right, we have the rise of authoritarians in countries where we didn't use to have that Turkey, Hungary, Brazil, Mexico, it looks like maybe India, the world's greatest democracy. There's a lot of criticism of Narendra Modi's, authoritarian style.

And then even within the United States, as I was saying, people on the left getting bad about free speech, but also people on the right supporting a guy who tried to be an autocrat as president, tried to steal the election he lost so he could remain president and is now campaigning on things like presidents must have absolute immunity for whatever actions they take. Well, that is a definition of a dictator, that he can't be limited and he can't be punished for anything he does. So that's why I think there's illiberalism coming from both left and right in the United States and around the world, people who want to do things that would truly erode this wonderful set of institutions that have given us this wonderful life.

Juliette Sellgren 

And when you say institutions, you mean more than just the laws on the books or the Constitution, right?

David Boaz 

Yeah, that's right. There are institutions in the sense of our general understanding and support for cosmopolitanism tolerance, rule of law, those kinds of things sort of underlie the specific legal institutions of the constitution or the laws or court decisions. 

Juliette Sellgren (9.43)

Yes, I think it's a very clear example to use the former president as an example of what illiberal looks like because he's attempting to sidestep institutional norms, ones that are very clear and have been for a really long time. But can you give us maybe an example of a policy battle, the fine differences between someone either on the left or the right that would be illiberal versus liberal? What does it mean to have a conversation within the liberal order and outside of it?

David Boaz (10.24)

It's a good question. One of the things that confuses this discussion is when the term liberals first started being used around 1820 people understood liberal to mean less government, free speech, free markets, private property, democracy, or at least a Republican form of government of some form. There are different forms, France, England, the United States, they have different forms of republican democracy. And then around 1900, a lot of people who called themselves liberals started favoring more government intervention in the economy- they felt to help the working class and the poor, but it meant giving more power to government, and that meant more taxes, a larger government, which meant more opportunities to infringe on people's individual rights. And so there's been this split for the whole past century that classical liberals, especially libertarian oriented classical liberals, still believe in a government that's very small and leaves the market and society to work without much government intervention. But now there are a lot of people from Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson to Obama and Biden, but also a lot of Republicans who just think there's a whole lot of things the government ought to do, and some of that is a child tax credit. They're debating this week a business tax credit they're debating this week.

A lot of it is individual programs that in themselves would not undermine liberalism, although you put enough of them together and you have to start worrying about the power you have given to federal government. So all of those things, I think we can say whether there should be gay marriage, whether there should be higher welfare payments, we can say, well, we can have that argument within a liberal world. When you start talking about seriously infringing on freedom of speech, then I think you are impinging on liberalism. You are being illiberal. And when you're supporting a guy who says, I want to get back in office to achieve retribution on my enemies and I want absolute immunity for anything I do, some people have pointed out to Trump, although Trump never listens, he doesn't respond to anything, but people are yelling back at him on Twitter and so on. You realize if we agree that presidents have absolute immunity, Biden could arrest you and throw you in jail. He could execute you. He has absolute immunity. And that seems like the sort of thing Trump hasn't thought through. But there are a lot of things he doesn't think through. But his instinct is, I want to be in to achieve retribution and I want absolute immunity that I can do anything and not worry about limitations or punishment. That is a decidedly illiberal point of view.

Juliette Sellgren (13.54)

Maybe this is wrong, but let me know what you think. I'm kind of starting to grasp that. While on the one hand, and I've talked to a few people on the podcast about this and I've been thinking about liberalism as a disposition that a person can have, you can have a liberal disposition where you're tolerant and you're open to having conversations and really you're curious and you want understand that this enriches life. This actually also applies to how we talk about the institutions that govern our world. While it can be a concrete thing, it's more of a default position or an attitude or a value that is embedded in certain institutions and norms. So on a case by case basis, maybe a policy doesn't necessarily become illiberal, but if the entire attitude that results in numerous policies that all have same different value maybe embedded in them, that becomes more illiberal.

David Boaz (15.00)

Yeah, that's right. The more power you give to government, even though each one power is not such a big deal, when you get to a government that's taking 50% of our income and that it employs millions of people who, as we've just been discussing in the Supreme Court, can make laws without being named, without ever having been elected to anything, unelected bureaucrats who take whatever laws Congress has passed, or even sometimes when there's not much of a law that's been passed and issue rulings on the way people have to live their lives. I think that's an illiberal way to run things. But again, there's a question of proportion. If it happens a couple of times, okay, we libertarians don't like it, but social democratic liberals do, the more it piles up, the more concerned there is that localities and private organizations and individuals are being hammed in their decisions.

People often say that in The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek said, if you pass more government welfare programs, you'll end up in tyranny. Well, that's not what he said. What he said was central planning will inevitably lead to tyranny because central planning really does mean that somebody in Washington tells everybody else in the country what to do, buy this, don't buy this, don't go into this business, et cetera. But still, it is true that the more power you place in the federal government and within the federal government, the more power you place in the executive, the president and the administrative state, then the less scope for individual action or social action in the sense of people getting together and making decisions, even state legislatures limited in their powers because the federal government gives them money and then tells them what they have to do with it, that sort of thing. So yes, I think there are those differences.

Juliette Sellgren (17.23)

You get at this idea that I think is also maybe at the core of it is this idea of balance. We have checks and balances, and you learn that in civics class or government class in school when you're young, but it really is this idea core to liberalism where one group of people or so the functions are separated, and then one group of people with access to one function, we obviously have more than that as human beings, but in terms of government, they can't control everyone else. And I guess maybe it's furthered by voting and democracy and other methods. So if you still believe in voting as an institution that upholds the liberal order, then maybe that's another input into this function of whether or not something is a liberal is how does it come about. And so do you think the method is as important as I think I'm implying?

David Boaz (18.24)

Yes. I think the American founders had grown up existed in a monarchy, and they knew that the conflicts in England had always been between some group of the people and the monarch. Now it might be the Lords, the Earls and Dukes and so on who objected to their rights and privileges being impinged upon by the king. But sometimes it was the poorer people, people who were not aristocrats, people who maybe didn't own property and so on. And so they put a lot of faith in an elected government. Libertarians sometimes argue that we don't live in a democracy, we live in a republic. Stop saying democracy. Sometimes I just say that one of the principles of liberalism is government by consent of the governed. Well, there are different ways that we can consent to the government we have. And in the United States, one important part of that is we get to elect our Congress and we elect our Congress in two slightly different ways.

So because back in those days, they worried that the big states would dominate. So that's why the Senate has equal representation for every state. I'm not sure people would care as much about that now, but government by consent of the governed is still an important aspect of a free society. Winston Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. Well, there's something to that. We can see lots of problems with our democracy or I would say our Republican form of government. But when you look around at the other things that are on offer, monarchies, dictatorships, military dictatorships, there may be some theoretical idea that all the people will come together and make all the decisions, but that's completely impractical, especially with as many decisions as our government is making today. You can't very well have all the people involved in that.

We would never produce any food because we'd be in meetings all day and all night. So yes, government by consent of the governed is an important check on the power of government. And in the Constitution, they put additional checks on what the powers of the President were and what the powers of Congress were. And in my view, we have eroded a lot of those checks and balances, and we would do better to get back to Congress demanding its full authority to make law, which is what the Constitution says. All legislative powers herein granted are vested in a Congress, not the president and his administrative staff. So there are lots of ways we can improve our government by consent of the governed, but we definitely want to keep the idea and the institution that ultimately the use of power comes from it being authorized by the people.

Juliette Sellgren

Some people use interchangeably the words classical, liberal, and libertarian. Do you think there's a difference between the two? And if so, what is it?

David Boaz (22.01)

Well, I think there's some difference. I mean, first you have the word liberal, what does that mean? And then you have classical liberal, which was kind of created to say, no, no, I'm a real liberal of the old fashioned kind of Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill kind. And then liberal seemed to be so completely corrupted in some people's mind that they started using the word libertarian, which is an actually different word for me, I would say, look, I think libertarian is a very strict set of rules, very limited powers of government. I would say the proper powers of government are to protect us from foreign threats, to protect us from domestic threats like criminals and to settle contracts.

So what I would say is if you believe in that strict definition, then you're a libertarian. If you believe in a somewhat less strict definition. Milton Friedman and Hayek both allowed for more government than I would- government funding, education, government, healthcare. And of course, they both lived a long time and they didn't always believe the same thing they had believed 20 years earlier, but they wanted somewhat more government than I do. So I would call them classical liberals. If we made a matrix, which we have done in some of our publications at Cato, where you say, well, there's economic freedom and there's political freedom, political freedom being like freedom of speech and so on, then you can make a four-way. There are people who are for economic freedom and political freedom. There are people who are against both of those, and then there are people who are for one but not the other.

I think that, I'm not sure exactly where I was going with that point, but in terms of defining the difference, there are a lot of people who I would say in terms of American politics, I would put in the libertarian quadrant of that matrix, not over in the corner where I am and not near the corner where Hayek and Friedman are. But any American who says, I don't care who marries who, everybody should be able to get a marriage license and who says taxes are too high and spending is too high, and I think the government should be smaller, I would call that person in the libertarian quadrant. And so if I were running a political libertarian organization, I would say that's my target group. I want more of those people, not just the people over on the corner of the libertarian quadrant, but people all through the libertarian quadrant is the market I'm looking for.

Juliette Sellgren 

Can you tell us a bit about your story discovering these values and beliefs that you hold and how you got there, how you came to classify yourself in this way?

David Boaz (25:13):

Well, I grew up in a family where people talked about politics. My mother was all but dissertation in economics. My father was a lawyer, and I would say they were sort of conservative constitutional Democrats. If you lived in Kentucky, you couldn't help but be a Democrat. But they were very skeptical of the post FDR growth of government. And so I think they sort of instinctively wanted to vote Republican, but for some local political reasons, they needed to vote Democratic. But I learned, I heard them talking about big government and so on. And then when I was in high school, I read the Conscience of a Conservative by Barry Goldwater, which is a very libertarian book except for the last chapter where he says, we should nuke the Kremlin. But other than that…

Juliette Sellgren 

Very casual statement…

David Boaz (26.12)

It's a book that wants to completely limit the federal government. So that was good in helping me. And then I think it was probably a couple of years later that I found a copy of Economics in One Lesson. And that sort of learned to me economics hopefully, because I never took an economics class in college, but I did read Economics in One Lesson in high school, and then I read Ayn Rand, and that made me more than a free market conservative. It pretty much made me a libertarian. And after that point, I would call myself a libertarian. And then I actually read a different book that was sorted by Iranian that demonstrated how if you believed Ayn Rand's principles, which are radical, classical liberal principles, then taxation is theft and you should not support taxation. And I was like, okay, that's right. I don't support taxation as a practical matter.

I support cutting taxes and then cutting them again and then cutting them again. And when we get down to maybe 5% of national income, then we should argue about whether we can actually go the whole distance. But until we get there, I'm not worried about cutting taxes. So when I went to college, I got involved in ideological politics first with conservatives and then with libertarians. And when I got out of college, I went to work for a conservative organization, and I increasingly came to realize that I don't really belong here. Libertarians are not a breed of conservative. They're actually different. And so I managed to petition the people in the incipient libertarian movement to give me a job. And I've been here ever since, not directly at Cato. I had about five years I think, of maybe less than that, of working for the Libertarian Party and a libertarian business group and so on. But I've been at Cato since 1981.

Juliette Sellgren 

Thank you for sharing something that we, classical liberals, libertarians, I would say, actually ask, let me know if you agree with this. I would say libertarians are a breed of classical liberal instead of conservative.

David Boaz 


Juliette Sellgren (28.43)

Okay. So we as an umbrella category often get criticized, especially from what I've experienced from the Postliberal right, for putting the Enlightenment on a pedestal. I think part of it is ignorance about the role that liberalism played in changing the world from what it was before to something better, something more prosperous, where people's rights were respected. Can you tell us a bit about what the world looked like before we had liberalism so we can better understand what it did for humanity?

David Boaz (29.23)

Well, Thomas Hobbes said that life for most people was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Now, for some people it was less brutish and less short than others, but that was the general plight of mankind for 5,000 years. I don't know if you've seen the hockey stick of economic growth, but the point is, and I'm not on video so I can't do it with my hand, a hockey stick is straight for most of its size, and then it turns sharply up. And that is what happened to the world. You had essentially, especially when you take the whole world, no increase in the standard of living for a thousand, 2000, maybe 5,000 years. And then along came the Scientific Revolution, which was a real revolution. Instead of just asking what the Bible says about anything, people started saying, let's experiment. Let's explore. Let's try to find out how the world actually works, how the stars move, how the planets move. And so with people like Galileo and Isaac Newton, you get a scientific revolution that intellectuals in Europe start thinking, yeah, we can think for ourselves. We can even experiment. We can test. And that leads people to think that they can challenge all sort of established ideas, and maybe we don't have to just believe in the divine right of kings.

And so that leads into, I think, well, the scientific stuff is part of the enlightenment, but the enlightenment is also understanding that we can live together better. Some scholars say the Enlightenment started when Voltaire wrote his letters on England. England being at that time one of the two most liberal societies in the world, not all that fully liberal, but getting there. And these letters in continental Europe told people, you can change the way 17th century before Voltaire. But that led then to Europeans and Americans starting to think about liberal ideas stemming from John Locke in a lot of ways, but developing them. And then of course, that develops into the American Revolution and the Declaration of Independence, which is a brilliant piece of libertarian writing. It says, all men are created equal. They're endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And whenever a government doesn't protect these rights, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and erect new guards for their safety. The same year as the Declaration of Independence, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations. So these are two great founding documents of liberal ideas, and they led to the liberal 19th century.

Juliette Sellgren 

And I guess what I want to ask, how did the enlightenment, the founding, the liberal 19th century, how did they change the average person's life?

David Boaz (33.13)

Well, if you look at what happened in the 19th century, I mean really it starts maybe in the late 18th century that economic progress, economic growth starts to happen. [Deirdre] McCloskey talks about sustained economic growth that is, it's not just a brief shining moment, but people start to expect that next year will be better, that their children's lives will be better than theirs, which is not something people really expected. Before the enlightenment, before the scientific revolution, they expected that my father was a serf, I am a serf, you'll be a serf. The enlightenment started to change that people said, I don't have to do what my father did. I can go off and go to the city and do something else. So in the 19th century, lots of political things changed. Slavery and serfdom were mostly ended, written constitutions and Bill of Rights, guaranteed liberty and the rule of law, freedom of the press and freedom of religion. But that liberation of human potential led to an incredible outbreak of invention and innovation. And if you just try to make a list of the inventions and innovations of the 19th century, you get the steam engine, the railroad, the telegraph, the telephone, electricity, the international combustion engine, I said telegraph and telephone, all those kinds of things, heating, travel, the railroad made it possible to travel. The telegraph made it more possible to communicate. People talk about the communications revolution probably 20 years ago before you were thinking about it.

And I thought the real telecommunications revolution was the telegraph because once you had the telegraph, information could be transmitted, say from Washington to London, almost instantaneously. It used to be the way you transmitted information from Washington to London was to put it in a letter and put it on a ship. And that's like six weeks, and suddenly you can do it instantly. Now, it's expensive at first, and not everybody's doing it, but information is being exchanged between different parts of the world, those kinds of innovations and explosion of entrepreneurship. People saw their standard of living increase. There's a story somebody told about what if Cicero visited Thomas Jefferson, he would have to travel by water and then by horse to get to Monticello. And when he got there, he would find a brilliant man like himself reading by candlelight, writing with a quill pen, and depending on slaves to keep his life as comfortable as it was.

And that would be very much like Cicero's life in Rome writing on. Well, Cicero I guess wrote on scrolls, so there was a little progress there, but with something like a quill pen, and he had slaves to take care of him. But if Cicero and Thomas Jefferson then decided to visit Henry James a hundred years later, it would be completely different. They would send a telegram saying, we want to visit. They would take a train to get there. When they got there, there would be electric light and some heating if they wanted to write letters back home. There's a postal service completely different in a hundred years.

Juliette Sellgren (37.08)

That is a good story. I can see it. And I guess that that's how you explain things. It's wonderful. So we've kind of talked about a few of the things I'm going to mention, but after the liberal 19th century, after the Enlightenment, there began to be this growth of government and infringement upon the hard won respect for Rights, American Revolution, and all the Postliberal, right? The illiberal right? Would have you believe that this is kind of the natural course of liberalism where we are today and what culture looks like and what government looks like. The left would instead have you believe that these infringements are your rights? And neither of them are quite right as we've talked about, but what are they getting wrong and where did that start?

David Boaz 

Well, liberalism certainly led to the world we have today, and I talk about…

Juliette Sellgren 

How they're referring to the bad parts,

David Boaz (38.09)

Right? I talk about how much better it was in 1900. It's incredibly better in 2023, but there certainly are problems. There are still problems with poverty, and there are problems with war. There are problems with hate. And we've actually made a lot of progress on all of those. We brought a billion people out of extreme poverty since 1990. We have fewer people, a smaller percentage of people in extreme poverty than ever in the history of the world. Basically, we've gone from 95% to 5%, but we can focus on the 5%. Why are those people still extremely poor? What can we do to help them? And that's where we get into an argument. Some people say the way we can help them is we give their governments foreign aid and then it will help them and others say, no. What those countries need is free trade and private property and the rule of law so they can create their own wealth and they don't need to live on foreign aid from western countries.

So partly it's just a difference in understanding that we think allowing people to make their own decisions to do what's best for their families is what will make the society and the individual and the family prosperous. Other people think, well, that isn't working. And that's the argument we have with the illiberal rights. Sometimes their objection has been that it used to be that people grew up in nuclear families, and when they got to be 18 or so, they courted under their parents' observation and parents made sure that they found the right kind of spouse. And that's the way to create a good society and also all arranged around the church or maybe several churches, the established church originally, but then multiple churches. And I think they don't appreciate that people have different interests and different instincts and different preferences, and maybe that nuclear family style doesn't work for everybody.

Maybe being able to choose the person you want to marry without your parents or the church having to approve it, maybe that makes people happier and maybe sometimes it makes them unhappy. People certainly make bad choices in marriage, but would it be better if they were more controlled? I don't think so. Reason magazine emphasizes this sort of thing a lot that new kinds of entertainment, new kinds of ways of living lifestyles and so on allow more people to live the way they want to than any other system. But some of the illiberal conservatives don't appreciate that. They don't want drag shows, they don't want modern art. They don't want abstract art. They even talk about going back to traditional, but what they really like to press is a nuclear family, having a picnic mother, father, two children, they're white, of course, and that that's the ideal way of life. And the government should work harder to ensure that everybody gets to live that way of life. But that's not necessarily the right kind of life for everybody. So why not have a world where people can choose that if they want, but they can choose other lifestyles if that seems more satisfying to them, if it will meet their needs better.

Juliette Sellgren (42.18)

I want to circle back to the title of your piece and kind of bring all of this together. If the world, if we have more choice than we've ever had before, and if we're more prosperous than we've ever been before, and you did outline these people who oppose the liberal order that we do have and that has caused these things, but your piece is titled to Save the World Fight for Liberalism. How much do you think the world needs saving? And is this a new sentiment or is this just a catchy title? Is this something that you've been thinking about for a while?

David Boaz (43.01)

Well, I didn't write the title, so I don't know that I would necessarily have chosen that title, but it is true that if we got more Modi's and Orban and Lopez-Opradors and Trump's, then the world would need saving. And that's why it's important to push back on all of these illiberal ideas and illiberal movements and illiberal people and try to help more people see, look, you may think that you'd like to have less choice in these areas, but if you do, you will also have less medical technology, less pharmaceuticals. You will have a less comfortable life. I mean, who knew they needed a smartphone and now how could we get along without them? And that's one of the things that Illiberalism would do for us. It would cut off progress. And if we could freeze progress at 2023, there are some people in the United States and certainly around the world for whom that would not be a good place to stop for some of us.

Hey, life's pretty good. If we stopped right here, we'd be all right. But you don't just stop right here. You get stagnation. You get deterioration. Look at a country like Argentina before Milei for the last 80 years, or a country like Venezuela where they were reasonably prosperous liberal countries, and then they adopted illiberal policies advanced by demagogue, and they have rapidly become far less prosperous and far less free than they were. So it's not really possible to freeze things. In a sense, maybe that's what happened in Argentina. They just didn't have any economic growth for a long time. And that meant the rest of the world was getting richer, but Argentina was not Venezuela. It was a more rapid collapse. And so Venezuelans alive today can say 20 years ago, it was better. It was easier to get a job. It was easier to pay for food.

Food was in the stores. So that's the concern we have that this government program or that government program by itself is not a big deal, but if you start piling them on and then you have demagogues saying, give me power and I will help you, and I will hurt your enemies. And that's pretty much what all these demagogues did. Peron in Argentina, Chavez in Venezuela, Modi in India, Orban in Hungary. And to some extent American politicians too, say, I will increase government benefits for you, or I will cut your taxes and I will punish the people you don't like. Look at Governor DeSantis in Florida. Disney criticized something DeSantis did, and DeSantis went nuclear on them, took away the governance of Disneyland from Disney. So that's an example of when you give government too much power, suddenly you get a guy who says, I don't like Disney and I'm going to screw them over. That's why we want government to remain smaller, and we want to resist these people who say, I will give you something, and all you have to give up is a little bit of your freedom.

Juliette Sellgren (47.02)

So you're kind of getting at this idea that I kind of think of as us being on the defense. The nice thing and also the difficult thing about living in a liberal order is that the liberals, the true liberals, the classical liberals will always be on the defensive. And this has been true since the conception of America. You've seen a lot in the fight for liberty and economic and social freedom, and you're an inspiration for so many people. What is that battle, the continual, lifelong America, long, honestly battle to defend liberalism? What has it taught you about what we should be doing, especially in this moment, to defend the order that we hold dear and to give us the lives that we have and to continue that for future generations? And how is that similar or different to the ways that we've defended it in the past?

David Boaz (48.05)

Well, it's an interesting question. To me, we worry so much about Illiberalism on left and right, and not even just the worst kind of illiberalism, but whether you elect Republicans or Democrats, they're always passing new laws, new regulations and so on. And we don't see people out there who seem to be looking for a liberal politician, a liberal program. Maybe Ronald Reagan came across that way, and yet, and so we see all these organized people on the left and the right, I wrote in a paper on the libertarian vote. Liberals have unions, conservatives have churches, libertarians have think tanks. And of course there aren't many people in think tanks.

But with all these problems that we see liberalism struggles through, we still do live in a liberal society. We still live in a society where every year we are a little bit richer than we were the year before. And richer doesn't just mean that Jeff Bezos is richer, it means that all of us have a slightly higher standard of living, partly because more things are being invented and made cheaper. And partly because every year most people get a raise or they find a better job. So how is it that liberalism has survived as well? And I guess one answer is liberalism works and none of the rivals to liberalism do work. And at some level, people know that. People know they don't want to go back. And once in a while, a people make the wrong decision. Like in Venezuela, when they followed Hugo Chavez down the socialist rat hole.

But mostly people know they want, even if they couldn't name it, they want the liberal society that they live in. They just want a little more of this or a little less of this. But they don't think of it as this is an ideology, an idea, a set of that have made our world the way it is. So for those of us who do believe, we understand that, I think the first thing is to reach relatively intellectual people. Cato used to say, our work is for the educated layman, the person who cares enough to read a newspaper, to watch C-span, to think about public policy, but not professionals, just regular people who are concerned about the state of society. So you want to reach, I think intellectuals first. That's kind of what Hayek told Antony Fisher when he was setting up the first free market think tank.

And then you want to reach the broader interested class intelligent laymen, and then hope that that will create a constituency for liberal parties or at least a liberal pressure on the parties that exist. And of course, there are bad things you might expect the Democrats or the Republicans to do, and they don't because they realize people would not like that. So I think it's a combination of intellectual work, even at the scholarly level and then at the level of distributing that scholarship to people who are intellectuals, and then applying that to current issues and moving it farther into the intelligent layman class. And once you do that, those ideas are going to start to permeate society. And if you think about it, there are a lot of things say in the 1940s that people believed that they don't believe. Now, they generally believed in racism.

They generally believed in antisemitism, maybe just a mild form, but there was a lot more antisemitism in the 1940s, 1950s than there is now. There was absolutely no freedom for gay people. And now there is, all of those things have been progressed. We also made some progress in cutting income tax rates, in eliminating a lot of the regulations that were put in the new deal. One of the things I always say to Cato interns is when I was your age, I was worried about being drafted and sent to Vietnam. You're not worried about being drafted. That's a huge increase for freedom. So we worry a lot about the ways government grows, and sometimes we think we're on the road to serfdom. And I think that's the wrong way to look at it. We've made a lot of progress toward freedom in the last couple of generations, but somehow that just becomes part of life. Presumably for college students today, gay marriage, it became legal for gay people to get married.

Juliette Sellgren (53.49)

Yeah, I don't remember how old I was, but I remember someone telling me that, and I was just old enough to have coherent thoughts of my own. And I was like, wait, why would we even have to do that? That sounds like a dumb thing you're not allowed to do in the first place, because it just didn't make sense to me that anything like that could ever be against the law.

David Boaz 

Well, that's the continuing progress of the Enlightenment.

Juliette Sellgren 


David Boaz 

Enlightenment was important. It was a revolution, but it's not finished and it probably never will be finished.

Juliette Sellgren (54.24)

And that's kind of a beautiful thing. It gives us a purpose. Yes. Well, it doesn't necessarily give us a purpose, but it adds to it. If nothing else. Thank you so much for taking the time to come on the podcast and share your wisdom and your thoughts with us and to help characterize this thing, liberalism that we live within and that we benefit from to help us better understand. Thank you. I have one last question for you, for go. If you have the time, what is one thing that you believed at one time in your life that you later changed your position on and why?

David Boaz (55.01)

Well, mostly I feel like I just sort of drifted from believing in freedom and thinking conservatives did too, to believing in freedom and maybe believing in it a little more, the more I learned. But one specific thing I can say is my first published article when I was 14 years old was a Call for Victory in Vietnam. And I think a few years later, that's not what I would've written.

Juliette Sellgren 

So what changed? What led you to…

David Boaz (55.32)

Well, my ideas gelled in a way. They became more consistent. I remember the first conservative magazine I got, it had a lot of Libertarian articles in it, but it had others too. And as I started reading this magazine, I realized they're talking about order and freedom, and it's the freedom part. And I came here for now later, and maybe this is a change in my way of understanding later. I came to believe that ordered liberty was a good term for the kind of society libertarians and classical liberals want. Because we do want law and order. We want the rule of law. We don't want the war of all against all or anything. And so I'm a little more sympathetic to the conservative emphasis on order. I just think they put too much emphasis on orders that the government should give you orders as opposed to orders should emerge spontaneously from the peaceful actions of individuals. And we do need some police for the few people who are not peaceful.

Juliette Sellgren 

Once again, I'd like to thank my guests for their time and insight. I'd also like to thank you for listening to the Great Antidote Podcast. It means a lot. The Great Antidote is sound engineered by Rich Goyette. If you have any questions, any guests or topic recommendations, please feel free to reach out to me at great Thank you.

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