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Biographical note

Interview with
David Boaz
by Karen Minto


Q: Where did you grow up, and what kinds of ideas influenced your early thinking?

Boaz: I grew up in a small town in Kentucky. My father was a lawyer, eventually a judge and active in local politics. He was sort of a Jeffersonian Democrat, so I learned to believe in limited government at a very early age. When I was in high school I started reading books. I can recall reading The Conscience of a Conservative by Barry Goldwater and then Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. My first issue of New Guard magazine from Young Americans for Freedom was very important in helping me understand that you can be a "conservative" but a radical at the same time--and I liked that possibility. And as a senior in high school, I read Atlas Shrugged and that put me on the final path to developing the ideas I have now.

Q: So was reading Atlas Shrugged merely saying "of course!"?

Boaz: I wouldn’t put it that way, exactly. I was certainly primed to agree with the arguments I found there, and it certainly had an influence on the way I thought. It made connections that hadn’t occurred to me, but there were some elements of it that took me a few years to decide that I agreed, so it was more than simply discovering that it was what I always believed. Ayn Rand put things together in a way that I had not done and convinced me that if you believe this, then you ought to believe this as well.

Q: What was your major focus of study during your university career?

Boaz: I was very interested in politics, so I started out as a political science major. But as I came to realize how useless academic political science was, I ended up as an American history major.

Q: What made it useless?

Boaz: It seemed to me that political science textbooks spent a lot of time belaboring the obvious and then missing the point about it anyway. The classic example I remember was reading 30 pages proving what everybody knows, which is that most state legislators are lawyers. And then it concluded that it didn’t make any difference, because the lawyers in legislatures were liberals and conservatives and rural and urban and so it didn’t affect legislation. What I didn’t realize at the time was that liberal and conservative lawyers think the law is the way to solve problems, and that’s why it’s relevant that most members of state legislatures are lawyers. One of the reasons we have too much legislation is we have legislatures full of people who think that legislation is the way to solve social problems.

Q: You were the editor of the New Guard magazine, can you tell us about this publication?

Boaz: I don’t think it’s still around. It was the monthly magazine of Young Americans for Freedom. I was in high school when I first read it and, at that time, it had a very strong libertarian element that made a great impact on me. After I got out of college, I got a job in the office for Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), then later was appointed editor of New Guard, and I served for about two years editing the magazine. It was a useful way to learn some editing skills and I hoped to inject a more libertarian element into the magazine that had disappeared for a while.

Q: You were the director of the Ed Clark campaign for Governor of California in 1978. Can you tell us what you learned from that experience about the practical or "reality" side of politics?

Boaz: At the time, on the gubernatorial campaign, I thought that the Libertarian Party was on its way up in American politics, and that if we ran articulate candidates with a little bit of funding and a serious approach to the issues, we would be able to make a difference. Clark was a good candidate: not a terribly exciting or dynamic speaker, but articulate and sincere, and he had the professional demeanor that made him seem like a possible governor. That’s something that a lot of third party candidates don’t have. I learned the importance of presenting a professional image when you are presenting ideas that are outside the mainstream. We did pretty serious research statements and policy papers for a gubernatorial campaign. We did some significant advertising that was very issue-oriented and we got a very good response from both journalists and the public. At the time, it seemed really like the harbinger of future success for the Libertarian Party.

Q: Were you ever tempted to run for political office yourself?

Boaz: No, I haven’t been terribly tempted. I don’t think I have the personality for being a candidate, which is actually true of most Libertarian Party candidates. I might like to work on a campaign again, but I think I have a skill set that is better suited for campaign managing than being a candidate.

Q: What is the necessary personality type—can you describe it?

Boaz: You have to be much more extroverted than I am. You have to enjoy shaking hands, you have to be a back-slapper. Dick Randolph of Alaska is the only Libertarian Party candidate I’ve ever seen who can "work a room," as politicians put it. If you lack that skill, it is going to be very difficult for you to succeed in politics. Now, you can point to some counterexamples. I think Richard Nixon was not a very extroverted person, and it must have been sheer torture for him to do the retail kinds of politics. He was very smart and obviously extremely ambitious, and had the willingness to subordinate everything in his life in the quest for political power. This is one of the things I lack—what politicians call "fire in the belly."

Q: How did you come to join the Cato Institute?

Boaz: After I worked for the Clark for President campaign in 1980 (and of course we lost) I was unemployed. At that point Ed Crane, whom I had met in the course of libertarian activities, invited me to join the Cato Institute and move to San Francisco where Cato was located at that time. It was a very attractive opportunity. Cato was on the upswing. I thought it had the potential to grow, and so that is how it came about.

Q: As Executive Vice President, what are your primary responsibilities?

Boaz: I oversee our public policy work. That is, I don’t have to do very much about administration and fundraising, but I do read most of the policy studies that we produce here. I do some editing on them, suggest topics that we ought to be considering, work with authors, look for authors, look for topics that we ought to be covering and consult closely with Ed Crane on what topics we should be studying and how we should be presenting them to the public.

Libertarianism & Objectivism

Q: You attended the recent "Atlas and the World" celebration hosted by your institute and the Institute for Objectivist Studies. What was your impression of the panel sessions and of the multimedia and pyrotechnic enhancements?

Boaz: I thought it was a very successful conference. We had over 400 people there. Incidentally, I noticed that nobody was milling around in the halls during the panel sessions. Even the fellow selling books for Laissez Faire Books would grab the cash box and come in and listen.

Q: Is that unusual?

Boaz: It is unusual in my experience with Washington conferences, and I suspect it is an indication of two things. First, that the people there were really serious about Ayn Rand and her impact on the world, and second that they were paying for this conference with their own money. Many of the people who come to Cato Institute conferences are working for the government or for a lobby or a corporation, and since they’re not paying with their own money they may take it a little less seriously.

I thought the panels were all very interesting. The businessmen who talked about the impact that Ayn Rand had had on their lives were particularly provocative.

I was a bit skeptical of the pyrotechnic displays that had been scheduled for the dinner. I had a fear that the media might treat that as somewhat less than serious for a public policy institute—in particular, that people would remember that the evening concluded with a fireworks display that left a flaming sign of the dollar on stage. And I had this terrible fear that the Washington Post story on the conference would begin "Some say they worship the sign of the dollar and you couldn’t have disproved it Saturday night." Fortunately, the Washington Post treated the conference much more seriously than that, so it was an all-around success.

Q: Maybe they just saw it as symbolic, and people were just having fun. Objectivists can do that ….

Boaz: Perhaps they did. But given our experience with the Washington Post, I would have expected something more critical.

Q: Why do you think they weren't this time?

Boaz: Well, the reporter said she was sympathetic to Rand. And it was a party story. And she'd had a good time at our 20th Anniversary extravaganza, as well as the Atlas celebration, so maybe she was just in a good mood.

Q: Last year, you spoke to Objectivists on the topic "The Libertarian Challenge," in which you refuted some myths of libertarianism. What do you think Objectivists can stand to learn from libertarians such as yourself?

Boaz: In the first place, I am very skeptical of this whole question of "how can Objectivists and libertarians work together?". I think it has to be phrased "how can Objectivist libertarians and non-Objectivist Libertarians work together?" because as far as I am concerned, anybody who supports individual rights, the rule of law, private property, and limited government is a libertarian—and I assume that includes all Objectivists. So, if the question is "what can Objectivist libertarians learn from libertarians outside the Objectivist movement?", then I would say a couple of things.

First, the importance of being engaged in the world of policy and political change of working together to make a difference in the real world as it stands today. That could be through electoral politics, it could be through policy activity, but there’s certainly more to it than simply honing a philosophy. Second, I think Objectivists have had a tendency to emphasize philosophy at the expense of history and economics. And I would encourage Objectivists to pay more attention to experience, which is one way of describing history, and also to the practical side of the way freedom works, which could be considered economics.

Q: From what you know, do you think Rand was off the mark in any important way?

Boaz: Not in any important way. I think that she did not pay a lot of attention to history or economics, but I don’t think any one individual is required to be an expert in everything. So the fact that she concentrated on two things, philosophy and its presentation in fiction, is certainly not a criticism. As a person and as a movement leader I think she suffered from the flaws that a lot of movement leaders do. There was a certain intolerance of dissent and independent thought, which is particularly unfortunate in a philosophy devoted to independent thinking.

Q: Could you give some examples of Rand needing to pay closer attention to economics?

Boaz: If you read Rand, it is not so much that she was wrong, it’s just that she concentrated on individual rights and the morality of freedom. That’s a very important basis for a movement, but I don’t think it’s enough to persuade most people that freedom is good and that freedom works. I think the Chicago School economists have really done the most work demonstrating that in area after area, letting the market work produces good results. There may be a sense among some Objectivists and other libertarians motivated primarily by concern for individual rights that it’s a happy coincidence that pursuing a policy of individual rights leads to the results of prosperity and social harmony, but that if you had to choose, you would choose individual rights over good consequences. That’s a false dichotomy. It is implicit, although perhaps not played up as much as it should have been in Rand’s work, that it is not a happy coincidence—it would be unreasonable to expect that the proper philosophy for man did not lead to good results. It would make no sense to demand individual rights for a species for whom the pursuit of individual rights would result in social conflict and poverty. These two lines of argument have to work together. But it’s hard to think of people who you would call Objectivists who have pursued the policy-oriented analysis of the results of specific policies.

Q: Do you consider yourself an Objectivist, or is that too narrow?

Boaz: I would call myself a libertarian who is a great admirer of and was strongly influenced by Ayn Rand.

Q: Can you trace for us the major intellectual influences (writers and thinkers) who set the terms of debate during the rise of libertarian thinking in 18th century America?

Boaz: That sort of sounds like a final exam!

Q: It is! You didn’t know this?

Boaz: Let me try to do it very briefly. I think it’s pretty clear that the strongest influence on the American colonists and the developing libertarian sentiment there was John Locke. His Second Treatise on Government in particular, published at the end of the 17th century, was practically a bible for Americans in their arguments about government. Another important influence who gets less attention these days was Algernon Sidney, whose personal example of martyrdom and whose commitment to republicanism was very important to the colonists. The Cato Institute, of course, is named for Cato’s Letters, which was a series of pamphlets written by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. They took the ideas of John Locke in particular and applied them to issues of the day, and they were probably more widely read in the colonies than Locke. But they were sort of translators of Locke. Jefferson in particular was also influenced by some French writers, the Physiocrats and Destutt de Tracy and people like that. Then you had the Scottish Enlightenment figures, people like Adam Ferguson, David Hume, and eventually Adam Smith, who were influential. At the very end of the century, of course, you have The Wealth of Nations and Thomas Paine’s writings that bring all of these things together. After 1776 with The Wealth of Nations and Common Sense, you have both the positive social analysis of libertarianism (Smith’s analysis of spontaneous order) and the normative philosophy (Paine’s treatment of individual rights) coming together to form a consistent way of looking at the world.

Q: Are there any 20th century libertarian writers of equal stature?

Boaz: I don’t know that I’m enough of an intellectual historian to feel comfortable judging people on that basis. Certainly if you look in the book I edited, The Libertarian Reader, you see a lot of 20th century writers. I would point to Ludwig Von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Rand, and Milton Friedman as the great 20th century libertarians who do deserve to be talked about in the same breath as some of those earlier scholars.

Cato Institute – Priorities & Projects

Q: Cato is one of the leading institutes of the market liberal counterestablishment that exploded on the political scene in the last twenty years or so. How do you explain the rapid proliferation of free-market "think tanks?"

Boaz: I suppose demand produces a supply, and clearly there has been a demand for these kinds of think tanks. One reason has been the sense that the universities have become totally alienated from the real world, and certainly from the defense of bourgeois civilization. And there are people who have wanted to create a sort of counterestablishment, a group of dissident intellectuals who would defend private property, the rule of law and the market order. They discovered that you cannot find enough of those people in the universities, so you have to go out and create alternative institutions. And that is what has happened. Then, of course, it is also necessary that the people in those institutions produce good ideas, articulate them effectively, and present them professionally, so that they can become part of the intellectual debate.

Q: What are the highlights of Cato’s agenda for 1998, with mid-term elections coming up?

Boaz: We try not to be driven too much by elections. One of the things that we have to constantly remind ourselves, being in Washington, is that we don’t want to get caught up in the day-to-day affairs to Washington. This year we will be talking extensively and researching extensively on social security privatization. We’ve done several books in that area, and we did a major international conference in London at the end of 1997 with people from 38 countries talking about the problems of public pensions and the private sector alternatives.

We’ll be talking about radical tax reform, getting rid of the income tax and replacing it with either a flat rate income tax or a national sales tax instead of income tax. And along with that, we will be talking about drastically reducing government spending so that whatever new tax system is implemented, the tax can be at a much lower rate.

We have just started a new Center for Trade Policy Studies, and we will be stepping up the work we do defending free trade. One of the major issues that will be before Congress in the first half of 1998 will be the effort to expand NATO, and we’ll be producing studies and going on talk shows to talk about the risks, the dangers, and the costs of expanding of NATO. Underpinning all of this is our Center for Constitutional Studies which tries to remind people in Washington, on the courts, and in the media that we live in a country based on a Constitution of delegated, enumerated and thus limited powers, and that the Constitution is itself based on America’s commitment to individual rights. So when we talk about social security or education or regulation, we try always to work in the point that the Constitution doesn’t really grant the federal government any power in these areas, and if we were going to abide by the law of the land, there shouldn’t be any federal policies in a lot of areas.

Q: What’s the strategy for the medium and long term? Is there a Cato "five-year plan?"

Boaz: We’re a little skeptical of planning. While we try not to get caught up in the day-to-day business of Washington, if we are going to deal with public policy we have to respond to what’s in the news and what’s going to be in the news. So we don’t actually have a five-year plan. We intend to keep pressing the issues I’ve mentioned, and we will respond to other issues, like the Global Warming Treaty, as they come up.

We do hope to improve the security of our funding so that we know that we will have a long-term approach. We intend to increase the number and quality of studies we can put out and we are working to improve the publicity and marketing that we do for our studies.

Q: Who do you view as the most dangerously effective policy group working on the political left?

Boaz: I am inclined to say that it is the AFL-CIO. Without the effectively coerced union dues that the AFL-CIO brings to the Democratic Party and the social democratic movement, they would be much weaker. So in that sense I think the AFL-CIO is the most dangerous. You could certainly make a case for the Nader movement, which has taught all Americans that they are helpless pawns at the mercy of big corporations. You can make a case for the race and gender victimology community that has tried to use those sorts of arguments to fasten a whole set of regulations on the American people. But I think I would emphasize the AFL-CIO.

Q: How about on the conservative right?

Boaz: On the right, I would say the most dangerous and effective organization is the Christian Coalition, but it is perhaps quickly being passed on the right by the Family Research Council.

Q: How are they bad?

Boaz: Both of these organizations have a theocratic approach to public policy. They believe that what they consider Christian moral values should be the law of the land. Now, there are issues such as school choice and lower taxes where we can agree with these organizations, but I think their hostility to diversity and liberal values in general is the most dangerous aspect of the right wing.

Q: Many academics think that research published under the auspices of organizations like Cato is still second-rate, at least compared to research published in scholarly journals and by university presses. Is this just ivy-league snobbism, or is there a real credibility gap that you are working to overcome?

Boaz: I would challenge that question. I don’t know that academics in general think research from think tanks is second-rate. You mentioned university presses—many of Cato’s books are published by university presses. So we’re already partially working in that milieu. There is a sense, of course, of rivalry between the academy and the think tanks. Think tanks are always criticizing the academy for its alienation from reality and academics don’t appreciate that. Many of Cato’s studies are used in college classes and cited in academic writing, so I don’t think there’s as clear a dichotomy as you suggest. Now it’s certainly reasonable for intellectuals to say that studies published in refereed scholarly journals deserve some credibility that non-refereed studies don’t have. But we feel we’ve had a pretty good reception in the academy. People who disagree with us take us seriously and we get a lot of compliments from people who agree with us.

Q: If the Libertarian Party were to win majorities in both houses in 2000, and a Libertarian president were elected, how would you advise Congress to act—what are the most pressing and urgently needed reforms?

Boaz: Well, that is such a fantasy it hard to know where to start! We have published two editions of the Cato Handbook for Congress in which we give hundreds of suggestions to where Congress should start to reform things. If we had a Libertarian president and Congress they should start by affirming that the Constitution as written is the law of the land and that they intend to return to abiding by it. In pursuing that goal I hope they would abolish about eight cabinet departments that we have recommended: education, labor, commerce, transportation and so on. They should transfer Social Security from a bankrupt mandatory system to a privately funded, individually managed retirement system. They should radically change the tax system and they should start disentangling the United States from its foreign military alliances. How fast even a Libertarian Congress could do all of these things is difficult to predict but those are the areas I would expect you would work on.

Q: Tell me more about the Handbook, and how well it was received. Has it had an impact?

Boaz: We published that first in January 1995 and then we published another one in January 1997. In both cases we had some 30 to 50 chapters on different policy issues, a total of over 200 recommendations to Congress. It was designed to be the briefest, most concise, presentation of Cato analysis on all sorts of public policy issues and simple enough for a congressman to read. I think the first edition got a particularly good reception. We had House Majority Leader Dick Armey at a press conference to receive it, and say how delighted he was to have it. Sixty Minutes did profiles of both Dick Armey and John Kasich at separate times that spring and in both cases you could see the Cato Handbook for Congress sitting on their desks. I thought that was nice. A lot of Republican congressional staff members would call up and tell us how great they thought it was. In a sense, the Cato Handbook for Congress is like pornography for Republican staffers. They flip through the pages and say "oh, yeah, I’d love to do that, I’d love to do that!" They’re not actually going to, but they love to read about abolishing agencies and cutting taxes.

Q: Hmm ... maybe they need some philosophical fold-outs …


from Full Context, Vol. 10, No. 6
(February 1998)

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