On this episode of The Great Antidote podcast with Juliette Sellgren, she is joined by guest Nick Gillespie. In their discussion, Juliette and Nick cover libertarianism, elections, voting, and his book Declaration of Independents.
Nick Gillespie is an editor at large at Reason, the libertarian magazine of “free minds and free markets.”
A two-time finalist for digital National Magazine Awards for his work on “UPS vs. FEDEX: Ultimate Whiteboard Mix” and the documentary series Reason Saves Cleveland with Drew Carey: How to Fix the Mistake on the Lake and Other Once-Great American Cities, Gillespie is co-author, with Matt Welch, of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong With America (2011/2012).
“Nick Gillespie is to libertarianism what Lou Reed is to rock ‘n’ roll, the quintessence of its outlaw spirit,” writes Robert Draper in The New York Times Magazine. “For the past 20 years, Gillespie has been a writer, editor and intellectual godfather for Reason, the movement’s leading journal since its founding in 1968.” The Daily Beast named him one of “The Right’s Top 25 Journalists,” calling him “clear-headed, brainy…[and] among the foremost libertarians in America.”
Gillespie served as the editor in chief Reason.com and Reason TV from 2008 through 2017 and was Reason magazine’s editor in chief from 2000 to 2008. Under his direction, Reason won the 2005 Western Publications Association “Maggie” Award for Best Political Magazine. Gillespie originally joined Reason‘s staff in 1993 as an assistant editor and ascended to the top slot in 2000. In 2004, Gillespie edited the book Choice: The Best of Reason, an anthology of the magazine’s best articles. The Washington Post featured Gillespie’s tenure at Reason magazine, asking, “Which monthly magazine editor argues that the spread of pornography is a victory for free expression? And that drugs from marijuana to heroin should not only be legalized, but using them occasionally is just fine? And is also quite comfortable with gay marriage? The answer is Nick Gillespie, libertarian and doctor of literature, who…is injecting [Reason] with a pop-culture sensibility.”
Gillespie’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Post, Slate, Salon, Time.com, Marketplace, and numerous other publications. He has been a columnist for Time and The Daily Beast and he was a regular contributor to the late, lamented satire site, Suck, where he wrote under the name Mr. Mxyzptlk.
He is a frequent commentator on radio and television networks such as National Public Radio, CNBC, CNN, C-SPAN, Fox Business, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, and PBS. He has worked as a reporter for several New Jersey newspapers and as an editor at several Manhattan-based music, movie, and teen magazines. He is almost certainly the only journalist to have interviewed both Ozzy Osbourne and Nobel laureates in economics such as Milton Friedman and Vernon Smith.
In 1996, Gillespie received his Ph.D. in English literature from the State University of New York at Buffalo. He also holds an M.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing from Temple University and a B.A. in English and Psychology from Rutgers University. Gillespie, the father of two sons, lives in New York City.
Juliette Sellgren: Welcome back. Today, I’m happy to be speaking to Nick Gillespie, editor at large at Reason magazine. Before that, he was the editor-in-chief of Reason magazine from 2000 to 2008. And then editor-in-chief of Reason.com and Reason TV from 2008 to 2017. Nick originally joined Reason staff in 1993. He’s the author of several books, including the Declaration of Independents, a book he co-wrote with Matt Welch. He’s also a giant in the libertarian movement. So I’m super excited to talk to him today. Welcome, Nick.
Nick Gillespie: Hey, Juliette, it’s very good to be talking with you.
Juliette: So before we get started, what is the most important thing that people my age or in my generation should know that we don’t?
Nick: I hesitate to make any kind of suggestions about that. But I think the most important thing for everybody always to realize is that the world existed long before you did, and to be excited by that fact, rather than annoyed by it. And it’s always important to read history, not just of like, long ago days, but from 25 years ago, or 30 years ago, and many of the things that I think gen Z and younger millennials are facing are things that were being dealt with with a generation ago. So always read your recent history as well as your ancient history.
Juliette: I have found that to be true, I’ll be reading things and thinking, “Oh, well, it feels like they’re going through the exact same thing that we’re all going through now.” Except it’s different, but it’s the same sort of reaction. I think you’re totally right. And I tried to do that I struggle a little bit. But that’s good advice.
Nick: I find it very comforting to know that the thoughts that I have are not, I guess first the problems that I face are not original to me. And the thoughts that I have are not particularly original, the past is like this giant attic that you can rummage through, and basically find everything that you need is already up there. And you just have to kind of dust it off and figure out how to use it in the current.
Juliette: Yeah, I think I kind of first found that idea when I was reading, what is this book called? I was reading [inaudible] by I don’t even remember what the author’s name is, I probably should it’s like one of my favorite books, but that’s okay. There’s this group of people called the law. And their entire job is to basically, if someone comes up with a new idea to be like, “No, actually, that’s not a new idea. Someone already came up with that.” And then I started thinking, “Well, nothing, not nothing that I think of, but nothing that I am facing no problem is entirely new.” There is at least some aspect that has already been dealt with by other people at another time. And it is very comforting. Okay, so before we jump into your book, I want to ask you about your career before Reason. So you’ve done a bunch of things. You worked for teen machine magazine, where you interviewed celebrities, and you ghostwrote an advice column for Alyssa Milano, which I don’t know that sounds so cool. But I was trying to find evidence of this. And I couldn’t find it. And so I was looking at the stuff she’s writing today or her someone else. And I have to say I was not too impressed, what sort of stuff were you writing for her at that time?
Nick: I’ll rush to say that I never actually met her or have interacted with her in any way. But this was in the late 80s. And she was on a TV show called who’s the boss, where she was the daughter of a character who worked for another character in the show. And it was an advice column, it was like people, girls would write in and say, “I think that this boy likes me, what should I do?” My parents fight a lot, what should I do that type of stuff. And so, it was just a basic generic…
Juliette: Keep going girl, you got it.
Nick: It was a lot of that. And it was like, you believe in yourself, be good to yourself, be good to others, and good things will follow that type of stuff. So not exactly the sort of stuff you’re writing. I don’t know, it’s not all different. But it’s I did that and worked for a bunch of music and movie magazines for a few years after I had graduated college. And then I went to graduate school for English literature, creative writing, and eventually for a Ph.D. in American literature. And that was extremely helpful to me both to have worked, I worked for about three years after graduating college, and then going back to grad school, and it was really in going back to grad school, that I was ready to really learn a lot about a particular subject, literary analysis, cultural studies, things like that. And then, when I was going to grad school, I applied for a job at Reason, which I had been reading since I was in high school and got that and started my career at Reason.
Juliette: So about Reason, I asked Matt this when he was on a few weeks ago. So Reason’s slogan is free minds and free markets. What is your take on that?
Nick: It’s so Reason was founded in 1968. And it was by a guy who was into iron, Rand, as well as lots of other stuff. And the way I always read free minds and free markets was that it’s kind of the idea that economic freedom and individual freedom and the kind of economic liberty and civil liberties are conjoined. And that if you want to have a kind of good system for creating a world that makes sense, and that allows people to do most of what they want to become whoever they want to sell whatever they want, you need to be a free thinker, you need to be willing to entertain almost any idea, but you also need to be in a system that allows you to make money, and then kind of spend it on what you want. And when you have one of those things, but not the other, you get into a lot of trouble. And so, if you have some economic freedom and are able to make money, but then can’t spend it on the things you want, you’re going to be very frustrated if you can think about stuff, and kind of be free in the mind, but you’re not really allowed to, buy and sell the types of things you’re interested in. That’s also frustrating. And so it seems to me it’s an aspiration to have a libertarian society where individuals are given the most amount of kind of autonomy and space to think and live how they, however, they want to,
Juliette: That makes sense. So it’s kind of about consistency. I think about that a good amount where I’m like, I feel like everything that I think is kind of it’s centered around a principle, almost just the idea of freedom. And that seems to be more consistent than the things that other people are basing their beliefs on, just because it’s the same in, like, across the board, like, in terms of like fiscal policy, but also social policy. All the same. I don’t know.
Nick: When you think about it, libertarians tend to really prioritize kind of consistency of thought, or at least we try to, but part of it is, like what kind of world is it, if you’re free to run the type of business you want, but then you’re not allowed to marry the person that you’re in love with. Or you may not want to, you may not like drinking alcohol, but you’d like smoking pot, but one of these things is going to, that is sanctioned and is allowed and the other is going to have you sent to jail. Let’s try to make things more consistent across the board because then people can live their lives with a minimum of interference. But I think it’s also important in the free minds part to constantly be interrogating your premises and to be making sure that the reason why you’re doing things makes sense that it’s not just you happen to feel this way. Especially maybe even less when it’s involving yourself and when it more when it is, when you’re you’re talking about restraining other people from being able to do what they want to do.
Juliette: Yeah, in the book, the Declaration of Independents, it talks about this kind of it says, I think like the exact words were something like it’s a pre-political impulse. And I think that just describes exactly the way I’ve always felt about it. But I could never really describe, what is what’s the difference between big L, libertarian and small l, libertarian?
Nick: Well, I think big L, libertarian means, somebody who is a member of the Libertarian Party, which is a political organization that is trying to elect people to office. So in the same way, you can be a small d, Democrat or a big D, Democrat, meaning that you believe in representative government. And more or less the majority rules, you can also be republican with a small r, where you believe in representative government, but that certain things cannot be put up to a vote, or you can be a capital R. And there’s always some difference. When it comes to libertarians, a capital L libertarian is a member of the Libertarian Party, and you’re trying to act in elections and stuff like that to get your preferred candidates, put into office and all of that, I think a small l libertarian is somebody, and that’s what I consider myself, I’m not a member of the Libertarian Party, although I always end up voting for them when they’re around in an election if I’m voting. Well, the way I define it is kind of it’s an attitude, it’s a predisposition, it’s kind of temperament that I want individuals or I want people to be able to make more choices in their life to have more options in front of them, rather than fewer. There are cases where politics, or reality means you’re not going to allow people to do anything that they want in any circumstance. But the kind of the starting point is that people should be basically allowed to live however they want unless somebody can make a really strong case that allowing that it’s gonna cause all kinds of problems.
Juliette: That makes sense. Okay, thank you.
Nick: All right.
Juliette: Let’s talk about the book now. I mean, it kind of mentioned it before, you talk a lot about the increased amount of freedom and choices that people have in their non-political lives, and how that betters their lives as a result, and this doesn’t necessarily relate to a specific policy or anything like that. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Nick: Yeah. It’s funny because that book came out about a decade ago. In some ways, the specific examples are dated, but I think the general ideas that we’re talking about in that still hold up. But, take for instance, and again, this is why knowing history a little bit is helpful, it flushes out your vision of the world. But, 20 years ago, Starbucks was just kind of beginning to become like a major kind of chain. And before that, you know, and it wasn’t that there were laws against it, or that you couldn’t have good coffee and coffee drinks have all kinds of different types, with sugar and milk and cream and ice and, or hot or whatever, it’s just that there wasn’t much of a market for it. And then the people behind Starbucks really started coming up with ways that he was different types of coffee, they were offering different types of drinks, you can personalize everything where you get two shots of caramel sauce, or one or none, you get black coffee, or you get coffee with whipped cream, and all of this kind of stuff, I would argue that in being able to go into a place and order from 1,000 or 10,000 different possible options off of a menu, you’re given more choice, and you’re able to enjoy more things, you’re able to try out new ideas, you’re able to try out new tastes and flavors and dishes and things like that. And that’s an increase in freedom. That might seem like a kind of banal one or a trivial one. But it holds up for a lot of different things, including, how do you live your life? It used to be if you go back 50 years or 100 years ago, if you were a woman, for instance, or if you were black, you did not have the same number of options that you have now certain things either because of laws or because of customs and you have received tradition. Women just weren’t allowed to do certain types of things. More recently, a lot of things have opened up that weren’t open before giving people more choices. And that’s kind of the starting point. And in most parts of our lives, when you think about things like food when you think about things like jobs and working hours and working conditions, people over time have become much more able to kind of determine where they want to work and how they want to work. Whereas before, a lot of that stuff was kind of forced on them. Those are a lot of big changes. And some of these changes come specifically because of political action, a lot of the ways in which say blacks and women have advanced was because of political arguments to change particular laws to allow more people to participate more fully in parts of life. But a lot of it is also just that people change their mind and people loosen up things are people innovate and come up with new ideas. Like Starbucks, or like Whole Foods, markets and stuff like that, just where suddenly you’re able to access a whole wide range of behaviors or activities or commodities that you never would have thought to even try before.
Juliette: And that’s kind of what the book is about, in a way. It’s about calling out people and telling them to chill out and to put politics on the backburner and to kind of focus on I don’t know, living your life and having those choices for yourself.
Nick: One of the things that were the starting point for the book was that Matt and I had recognized in our lifetime, and we were both born in the 1960s. And just in our lifetime, things had become much less kind of stuffy or stuck up. In most parts of our lives, you know, people were able to wear their hair, different ways, people were able to dress differently, people were able to talk differently, and just kind of look differently, everything became looser. Everything, there were more and more choices, and what to watch and TV, you know what to wear, where to work, how to live. But when you get to politics, you’re still stuck with basically two choices, the republican and the democrat or conservative and an illiberal. And why was that? How can we bring the amount of choice and individual individualization and personalization? That’s in all other parts of our lives? How can we bring that to bear to politics?
Juliette: There has been a rise of a more independent class of voters that don’t necessarily identify with either side. Can you talk about the connection that exists between more choices, more freedoms in terms of like, where you go to eat, what you wear all that stuff, and the rise of this more independent group of people?
Nick: Yeah, and again, history is helpful, it used to be that or if you think about political parties, as kind of package bundles, I mean, everybody now is kind of cutting their cord. So you don’t worry about a cable package in the way that you used to. But it would be, you would pay 100 bucks a month or something for a cable package. And in order to get three or four channels that you really want, you would have to buy the whole package. And people kind of got fed up with that, or on a record album, I grew up in a period when the typical way to buy music was to buy an LP an album, you know, that that cost maybe 10, or $12. And it might have two or three songs on it that you really liked, by the time of Apple Music and iTunes and other forms, where you just buy individual songs like you didn’t have to spend $12, in order to get $3 worth of music you wanted you to adjust by the music, you want it or you would find it, online for free and things like that. So, there was this move from having to take package deals where you had to take a lot of stuff you didn’t want in order to get the things that you did. That’s kind of how political parties operate. So, if you’re a republican say or something, or rather, let’s say you want low taxes, you’re in favor of low taxes, in order to get low taxes, like you had to buy a bundle by voting for a republican or somebody who would call themselves a conservative, but that would also mean you had to be anti-abortion and you had to be in favor of a big military like you can’t kind of strip out the one thing that you really want to just go for that, and on the Democratic side, or the liberal side, it might be that I’m in favor of abortion rights or reproductive freedom. But in order to do that, I have to buy with my vote a party that is super in favor of high taxes, and, you know, unions or something like that. It’s like, “No, these issues have nothing to do with one another. Why should I have to take that package rather than voting for the things that I want.” And I think one of the things that we’re talking about in the book is the idea that as people realize that bundles are oftentimes a bad deal, it means that people are trying to get rid of stuff that they can’t sell otherwise as we get as we deep bundle, all sorts of things in other parts of our lives, it will eventually come to a place where maybe we start doing that in politics. And instead of having laws or parties that cover so many aspects of our lives, we instead shrink what politics is, is about to fewer and fewer issues. So that we can vote on those more independently, rather than having to vote for somebody we agree with on one thing, but then have to put up with five or six or a dozen things that we actually either don’t care about, or are actually against.
Juliette: That’s a very good way to explain it, except I’d say, me and a lot of other people my age have started buying records.
Nick: Now well, it’s true. That’s a good point. And it’s also because an album, or like a whole record, LP stands for long playing. And it might have an hour’s worth of music on it or 45 minutes’ worth of music. And it also allows, in the same way, that a novel allows a writer to produce a different effect than a short story was one of the selling points of albums was that it was more of a deeper, rich, artistic statement.
Juliette: I think that is why I like albums that I’ve started listening to things all the way through instead of pressing shuffle. And I realized that the shuffle button is fooling me like this. No, that’s wrong. It’s not wrong. I just prefer listening to an album in order because the artist said it should be that way.
Nick: But you also don’t want to take the artists too seriously, right? And this now goes back more into my kind of literary studies background, but the author, obviously, intended something. But as a reader, as a consumer, you don’t have to put up with what the author intended. Because when you listen to something, or you read something, or you consume something, you make it your own. And I can remember, there were some of my favorite musical artists, and say, somebody like Bob Dylan, who is one of the great figures in the past 60 years of American popular culture, he has a great album called blood on the tracks, and there’s one song in particular on it that I hate, that’s like six minutes long. And whenever I would play the album, I’d play the first side, I turn it over, put on the second side, and then I have to wait. And I would pick up the record needle and skip it over that one track that I don’t like, you know, and again, that’s subjective, right? But it’s my experience, I can do this. And when CDs came out, one of the things that CDs allowed, was still an album, and you were buying the whole thing. But you could program the tracks. So like, you could program, a record, a CD album, and you could skip over stuff where you can put the songs in whatever order you want it, which was kind of empowering, and then eventually, of course, when you get to mp3, you can now just create your own playlist and something like Spotify. I mean, think about this, too. This is like the type of innovation that gives the end-user, the consumer, the individual more power is than when you go to Spotify, instead of listening on the radio, for songs that are just kind of floating by and maybe you’ll hear the song you want. Spotify allows you to create a playlist and you can create, you can take all the music set that is out there, all the music you like, and you can create your own playlists, you can create your own album, out of everything that’s out there. And that’s kind of cool and interesting. Having said all of that, I do agree that there’s a real pleasure. When you like an artist, and you go by their vision, and by what they say now this, these are the songs that go together in this order. That’s also kind of brilliant.
Juliette: Yeah, I get that. The other day, I was like listening to the radio, and some random song came on, I was like, “This is awful. I’m not a fan of this.” And I was thinking how crazy it must have been, I guess it wasn’t crazy until you’re me, and you’ve never had to deal with not having control over what you’re listening to. But it’s so foreign to me the idea of not having control over what I’m listening to, like, someone else is completely in control of what’s playing on the radio, and all I can do is turn it off, or change the channel to something else, where I don’t have any sort of control over that, either.
Nick: That was a huge shift in kind of American culture. But yeah, global culture really was, and it might even be something like, you know, and a lot of this was technology, it’s technologically driven. But, I always used to think about it, I really liked watching the Charlie Brown, Christmas special, but it would be on once a year. And it was like if you didn’t have a TV Guide, or it was hard to get information about when stuff was going to be on TV and on what channel at what time, on what day, you could be waiting the whole year to see a Charlie Brown Christmas special. And for some reason, if you weren’t sitting in front of the TV when that’s the station that played a broadcast that you had to wait another year later, and by the time I had my own kids and stuff like that this stuff was available first on VHS tapes, and then on DVDs, and now it’s on streaming services, you can watch it whenever you want. And you can even chop it up and record it and play it back and do all kinds of modifications to add. that’s hugely empowering. I think that’s happening in all kinds of aspects of our lives, where we have much more control, and much more power of what we consume, when we consume it, how we produce things, etc. And it’s great. And it doesn’t mean, that we should… If you find an artist, or if you find a singer, if you find a chef, if you find a store that is curating the types of things you like to buy, you want to go to that place and kind of learn from them. But the relationship is much more equal, it’s no longer somebody who’s just telling you, this is what it is, and you better like it, it becomes much more collaborative. And that’s a great place to be, where everybody has more say about what goes on in their life.
Juliette: It’s like how my friend chooses to start listening to Christmas music in October.
Nick: Yes, it can be very annoying, right? Because we’re all different. And we all have different tastes.
Juliette: Yeah. But also, I mean, you write about this in the book, but voters have been doing this, they’ve been kind of making their own choices by being independent. How do we stand now, on the independence front? I don’t know, what is the connection between, libertarians and independent voters? Because there’s not always overlap. I mean, they’re all independent. But some of them are libertarian, some of them are not.
Nick: Yeah. What I think it comes down to is, and this is something when we looked at early polls that study what’s called voter self-identification, polling places like Gallup, would call up people and say, “Regardless of how you’re registered, do you tend to vote for Republicans or Democrats? Or are you independent? In the early 70s, it was, like, almost 50% of people said, they said, they identified as a Democrat. And it might have been in the high 30s, low 40s that identified as Republican. When you look now, and this has been declining ever since. But now it’s like about in the most recent Gallup poll was something like 25% of people said, they considered themselves republican about 30%, considered themselves Democrat, and the rest were independent. The independents have been the single largest group, for a couple of decades now. And I think, in this is what we argue in the book, it’s because the republican bundle and the democratic bundle represent, it’s less and less appealing to more and more people for some of the Reasons, that I talked about in the past, where it’s like, it may have made sense that three or four different policy positions went together, low taxes, a big army, big military and reverence for the American flag like does all made sense. There aren’t that many people who you know, that If you’re doing a Venn diagram that fits into either of these parties anymore, and so they’re kind of politically homeless. And I think one of the things that connection, and that’s not going to end anytime soon because the parties have become more and more extreme versions of themselves. So the Republican Party is much more conservative in a very narrow and cramped way than, you know, than it used to be, the Democratic Party is much more kind of liberal or progressive in a way that it was in 50 years ago.
So they’re going to appeal to fewer and fewer people. How does that group of independents and libertarians fit in? Well, you’re right. They are not exactly the same thing. But there is one of the connections is that generally speaking, people in America are increasingly kind of socially tolerant. They really don’t care about things like homosexuality or race, when it comes to who is their neighbor, who should you be allowed to marry these types of things, people are much more looser about social life, and they don’t think that should that the government should be forcing rules on people in order to live a certain way. And a large number of Americans are also fiscally conservative meaning or fiscally responsible, meaning that they think the government should be you know, spending less money and doing fewer things. And in that sense, there’s a large overlap, I think, between a kind of libertarian sensibility, and this growing group of independent voters. At the time of the publication of the paper edition, I am a fan of paper additions. I personally don’t like hardback books, by the way, if I may. This is why history is fascinating, the creation of the paperback book, which was vastly cheaper, started coming up in the early 20th century, and, like the 30s, and 40s. And especially after World War Two, but paperback books were much cheaper, meaning that more people could read them and afford them. And that was like technological innovation, that a couple of business publishers figured out what we can publish paperback books that are cheap, and then more people will buy them, and we’ll make less money on each book, but we’ll sell more, so we do well. And then suddenly, the masses were able to access books in a way that a paperback book is very expensive. Rather, hardcover books are expensive, the paperback is cheaper. And suddenly you change the flow of information in the same way that the internet suddenly made massive amounts of information readily available to people who otherwise had no idea what was out there?
Juliette: That’s beautiful. I feel like that justifies me, I don’t want to read a book that’s hardback, I will not I just no.
Nick: Well, you might find that at some point, you find a book that you particularly love, and you’re gonna read it over and over again, and, a hardcover book lasts longer.
Juliette: Yeah, it’s good. That brought it to the masses, that makes me feel it just has this new level of beauty, I guess, I don’t know if you can call it.
Nick: It was kind of controversial paperback books. Sometimes, paperback editions were considered inherently inferior, because they were cheap and disposable. And sometimes books, the novels that were published as paperbacks were kind of smutty, a little bit dirty or racy, and things like that. But, again, it just massively expanded, what was available to people. And this is one of the things and to go back to this to harp on the idea of history and whatnot. At every point, or in the past 100 years, and past 200 years, 250 years, people have been freer, they’ve been wealthier, they’ve had more stuff and more choices to make in their lives. But it’s always good to remember what it was like 25 years ago, 50 years ago, not so that you feel complacent about where you are now, but so that you understand, like, the goal is always to be giving people more stuff for the same amount of money or less. And it’s really, it’s exciting to me, I’m in my 50s and just the amount of stuff that I have access to, under the conditions that I want, like I can watch TV, I can watch the shows that I want from the past, from the present, almost from The future you know, in a way that was unimaginable when I was a kid and you know what’s the next thing that should be like that where you have more and more options to do things the way you want that’s like a great world.
Juliette: It does make me think about all the stuff that is that I’m using now like phone, computer, anything microphone, earbuds, whatever. How is that going to change? Because if books can change so much that paperback books are normal now, then what’s going to be new? I’m excited for that.
Nick: It’s a reason to get up in the morning, it’s also a reason to think about how can you contribute to that either by creating content, which you’re obviously doing, or creating the next medium, in which content gets distributed? It’s fascinating, the people who created, say Twitter, or something like that, it didn’t come at the expense of anything else. They didn’t say, “Okay, we only have 100 units of internet time or internet space. And we’re taking this old stuff, and we’re using it for Twitter now.” They just created a whole new space and a whole new world where people can interact and communicate. Some people would say, “Oh, this was a waste of time, or this is bad.” TV was vilified when it came out as a waste of time. And it’s like, radio is better. Radio was vilified when it came out. And people would say, maybe movies were okay. But then people hated movies, and you go all the way back. And again, one of the lessons of history is that everything new, as it becomes popular is made fun of its vilified. It’s considered stupid and bad for you. It’s unhealthy. And the novel which only emerged as a form, and now it’s considered like a high-class rd thing when it really emerged as a popular form in the 1800s. In the early 1800s. It was people in charge who felt threatened by it, were terrified that people would read these books and become sickly, or they would act poorly. It was kind of the way people talk about sometimes, something like rap music, or violent movies, or stuff like that. The same arguments that were made against rap music in the 90s were made against novels in the 1790s.
Juliette: And I don’t know, that made me think of Deirdre McCloskey, and that’s how people thought about innovation. Innovation was this awful thing. And then boom, no, it’s not. It’s cool.
Nick: We always do that. We always say people talk about Facebook is evil, cell phones, you have bad posture, you’re growing horns in the back of your head because you’re constantly on your phones. Nobody pays attention anymore. We have short attention spans, etc. Fear of innovation is not something that only took place in the past, it’s everywhere around us. And again, that doesn’t mean that everything new is good. But whenever people start to say I disliked this because it makes me uncomfortable, it’s new, it’s different. A lot of times people seek to ban that type of thing or to heavily restricted and say, “Only rich people can do it. Only educated people can do it, only smart people can do it.” You know that they’re participating in a very old tradition and one that is almost always wrong.
Juliette: So, back to the paperback book thing. So that came out a year after the original came out. And there’s a new foreword in this one. And it was about how everyone who read the book was impressed with the optimism expressed and George will call you, “Incurably upbeat journalists” other people call you out of touch. And you admit that you were hoping that in 2012, you would be further along in the quest to kick the government out of the bedroom and out of the boardroom? And right now, I assume that feeling has only gotten worse.
Nick: Yeah. It is difficult in the sense of, like, if you look at and this is partly in the book itself, if you look in 2012, if you compare 2012, to say, like 1972, or 1980, to 1992, whatever, the government was bigger, it spent more money at regulated more things. And yet, somehow we had become freer, because in all of these places that politics couldn’t control or regulate very well. People became freer. We had more stuff, people owned more cars, people had more TVs or more screens, individually, people either through customer through legal changes, you could if you were gay, you could actually be out and proud and you could get married and things like that. People more freely use drugs, even if they were illegal. So that’s the case for optimism, which is that politics is a lagging indicator of where society is already headed. But it’s also pessimistic because there’s no question that the government gets bigger the size scope and spending of government keep getting bigger compared to now. I mean, it almost is quaint. Just three years ago, or two years ago, the government was spending maybe $4.8 trillion a year, we spent in the past 12 months, we spent over $6 trillion on COVID relief alone. And there’s more coming. So, in that sense, things are going in anything but a libertarian direction but in…
Juliette: Can we put COVID relief in quotations?
Nick: Yes, of course, because it’s not it had nothing to do or virtually nothing to do with actually helping people who either had, was sick, or preventing it or whatever. But, it still is the case, I think that there are a lot of places where politics is getting better when you look at something like the drug war. And this is not necessarily to say, drugs, I mean, I believe drugs should be legal, I don’t think everybody should necessarily use drugs or anything, but the drug war is breaking down. And that’s a major part of government that is changing. Things like criminal justice reform are happening, there are a bunch of ways in which the police and law enforcement when they’re acting poorly, they’re actually being held accountable. There are fewer wars, than there used to be, which is a major thing. And that’s like, not a small improvement, that we’re actually bombing and killing fewer people was still too many, but it’s going in the right direction. Things like occupational licensing, these are laws that are usually done at the state level, sometimes the local level, saying that, in order to be a hairdresser, you have to do this, that and the other thing, and you have to get permission from the state, those are being challenged and struck down in various ways. There’s a lot of positive growth, even as the size and the scope of government are getting bigger and bigger. And this is a real challenge, I think, for people in your generation and your age, because, especially if you’re libertarian, because the fact is that people today are much more comfortable with kind of big government than they were 10 years ago, or 30 years ago. So that’s a challenge. If you want to get people to really start flipping sides, you’ve got your work cut out for you in a way that is tougher than I did.
Juliette: And the book also makes a really good case about how the most dysfunctional part of American life is the parts that are touched by politics and government, like, public schools, [inaudible], health care, everything, basically.
Nick: Retirement health care, and education, K through 12 education, especially, and this is something we’re coming out of the pandemic, and there had already been a movement towards school choice where the idea of letting individual students and their parents make having more choices. And this takes the form of, instead of making everybody go to the school that’s in their neighborhood, giving people the equivalent of the amount of money that’s being spent on education and saying, “Okay, you can go out, and you can choose which school you want to go to”. That injects a form of competition into education, which, generally speaking, means, when you have competition in a market, you get an increase in the quality and the quantity of the service or the good that’s being provided. And the price goes down. And we recognize this all the time, when you go to supermarkets, when you go to restaurants, food gets cheaper and better, because there is competition for the dollar of the customer. In places where you don’t have that where you have heavily protected markets, like in K through 12 education, where over 90% of people got to public schools, in healthcare, where 50 cents of every dollar in the healthcare system is spent by the government. there’s not as much competition, there are not as many market forces with retirement. Most people’s savings are forced savings through payroll taxes for Social Security, which is a terrible retirement plan. It’s not really a retirement plan, but it takes particularly lower-income workers, they get taxed heavily for a retirement benefit that they don’t really have any say over and that is going to do much worse than if you had been kind of investing in mutual funds all along with this. The same amount of money.
Juliette: And it’s really surprising, especially like, now, when the private sector has created incredible companies with these goods and services, you have Amazon, Facebook, Uber, Airbnb, you have like door dash, all this stuff. And yet there are these people me, like people my age that has been raised on this, like Reddit, like instant messaging, Instagram, all this stuff. You don’t tolerate waiting in line to get anything like you want it now, but they’re so willing to support big government. How does that make sense? I guess.
Nick: Yeah, so there is an economist who was very well known in his day, and he still considered highly named Joseph Schumpeter, and actually, you mentioned Deirdre McCloskey, she uses a lot of Schumpeter or Schumpeterian thought in her work. But Schumpeter is the guy who coined the term creative destruction, where he said, you know, that a capitalist society a free market society, generally, really helps poor people more than wealthy people, because it creates much more many more goods that at lower prices for people who are working-class rather than for kings and queens, who could always afford the most expensive version of the stuff. But Schumpeter also talked about that, what capitalism does is that it tends to be so successful in creating wealth and kind of spreading it around that people take it for granted. And then people are uncomfortable, one of the things that happen in a free market society is that whole industries go in and out of existence, in a single person’s lifetime, we’re in a decade or something like that. And that that is so disruptive that a lot of times people take for granted that we can just kind of dictate what we want and keep the system frozen in place, and then kind of redistribute whatever exists in a fairer and fairer way, that doesn’t work that tends to freeze innovation, and you end up being poor over time. And I think we have gone through in the past, 10 years, 20 years, a lot of disruptions because all sorts of innovative things are coming on the market. And while we benefit from it, it also freaks us out. And an example of this would be before Uber or Lyft, or a rideshare program, there were taxis. Taxis are extremely heavily regulated by the state, by meaning like the local government.
So in places like Arlington, there are very few taxi cabs available because the city file, the city government has said, there’s only going to be this number of taxis, you can hail them from the street, you have to call them up ahead of time, etc. A company like Uber and Lyft comes along, and they come up with a way that is just incredibly great at figuring out how to get affordable rides to people who want them, in a way that totally takes away market share from taxi cabs. And then, what people looking at that they say, well, it’s bad, that taxi cab drivers who have spent their whole life driving taxi cabs now, can’t compete against this, we’re going to limit Uber and Lyft or we’re going to make it so that taxi cab drivers stick around. And you can see how that’s that stops innovation. And it’s, it comes out of I think, a positive sense of regard for people, you don’t want people to be thrown out of work and like not be able to make a living. But if that’s the only thing that you focus on, then you’re destroying all of the kinds of innovations that make our lives better. If you know cell phones took away market share from old landlines, I don’t know if you’ve even ever used a landline, but like that, this is change happens because we want different things over time. And people come up with better ways of giving us what we want. Sometimes we don’t even know that we want something until it’s invented. And that’s very disruptive. And I think a lot of people now are wealthy, we’re much wealthier than we were 50 years ago as a society and we don’t like that disruption. But then in seeking to keep that disruption from happening, we end up actually creating a world which can’t really adapt and grow and innovate and become richer. it’s a real dichotomy.
Juliette: I don’t know, I feel like people are kind of scared in a way.
Nick: Yeah. Well, there’s so much unknown in the world, right? I mean, in the early 21st century, we had a kind of global terrorism in a way that in America, at least, that had never really been experienced, people got scared about that. We have an economic, a major economic recession in 2007, 2008, 2009, mostly because of government policies, attempts to kind of regulate the housing market and keep prices up, and a variety of other things related to that. But there’s a huge crash. And when there is that kind of disruption, people look for stability, and they expect the government to provide everything, where they want that. It’s an understandable impulse, but it’s something we need to talk about. And we need to figure out a way I think, where we allow creative destruction to happen because that’s where everything new and good comes from, that’s where electric guitars come from, which were hated. And that’s where radio came from and was hated. And then the next iteration of Spotify, which is hated, etc. Like, we need to be able to allow for creative destruction, make people understand why it’s happening. And then I think this is the role of government really is to help people who are dislocated by changes in technology or culture, and things like that, to help them move from where they were to where they need to be in order to flourish. And our safety net programs don’t really do a very good job of that. So we need to have better programs that actually work to help people learn how to live with change and to adapt to change over time.
Juliette: In the book, you say that “We need independence in politics and from politics” which, I don’t know, this is kind of what I think about when I’m thinking about all of this, and what people think about government the wants that they have, in relation to what they think the government should do. And it just astonishes me because it seems like the opposite of what’s happening where people are putting politics in the center of their lives. I mean, I had a friend, when Biden was elected, told me, they stopped watching and reading the news, because they knew the country was in good hands. And that first made me laugh and cry a little bit. But so I don’t know, can you talk about that a little bit?
Nick: Yeah, well, and the reason why we need independence in politics is because if you just become a team player, you’re gonna end up, on the Republican side, you’re going to end up defying reality, and in the current moment, saying, “Oh, well, you know what? The election was stolen from Donald Trump” if you’re going to be a team player, and you’re in a Republican, you’re defying reality, you have to sign on to a bunch of stuff that is just kind of nuts. Or if you’re a Democrat, it means that you’re going to sign on to something like the green new deal, and expansion of government, and into every corner of life, and without raising taxes to pay for this kind of stuff, putting, taking out more and more loans that will be paid off by people down the road in the future, by being an independent in politics, you will force politicians and political parties to be more responsible and more tempered, and more realistic, I think and what they say they can do, and how they act. And that’s a good thing. But then, more importantly, we do need this, I think, independence from politics. And this is a libertarian insight, which is that are the places where our lives get better and better are not in things that are we’re going to be voting on as much as in building the worlds and the communities that we want to live. The companies that make life so much richer and better. Uber and Lyft have done more to help people get around or things like bird scooters, and lime, and stuff like that. Those have had a better effect on our lives than all of the public transportation systems that people are constantly saying we need and things like that. You want independence from politics because when you’re outside of the world of politics, you have more options. And it’s not like one side wins and forces the other side to live the way they want. You can either use Uber or not. You can use lime or bird scooters and things like that. And so if we make politics the center of our life, then every election every two years, every four years, every annual election, there are going to be such brutal winners and losers that people will be at each other’s throats all the time. It’s so much better to live in a world that is beyond politics or before politics, where we’re just trying to figure out, in a voluntary way, how do we build the best business? How do we build the best church? How do we build the best school where we get people not because they’re forced to come to us, but because they want to come to us? How do we attract people and build the world that we want to live in?
Juliette: I don’t know, for me, it’s just kind of a silly notion because as you were saying, with the bundle idea, I really every time someone is elected, I’m like, “Okay, maybe one or two, okay, things are going to happen. But like, I don’t really agree with anything else.” And so it’s just, I feel like if I was independent through an entire, like, fit every single time that someone they didn’t like was elected, we would just have like war all the time. It would just not. I don’t know.
Nick: It’s awesome. By the way, that’s kind of happening. And I think we go into it in the book. But even in the first decade or so of the 21st century, there were historically high rates of where the White House or the House of Representatives or the Senate would flip control from Democratic to Republican. It’s that is completely continued. Since in the decades since the book was first published. And there is every reason to believe like the parties do not represent large swaths of people, they get into power, they’re extreme and unappealing, they win elections because they’re the only game in town. And they’ve rigged the system so that third parties really can’t compete. They get into power, they push their agenda, which is unappealing to people, and they get voted out of power in two years and four years, or in six years. That continually happens, the Democrats, that we voted out or Donald Trump was voted out of office as President, but the Republicans actually gained seats in the House, the Democrats took the Senate in the next elections in 2022, it’s almost certain that the Republicans will actually take control of the House because the Democrats aren’t that popular, they may take control back of the Senate, Biden will stay in office, but you know, there, they are not appealing to a broad consensus of voters. And as a result, we just keep flipping back and forth, because they’re not offering things they’re not offering a bundle, that gives them a majority that lasts more than a couple of years, they should be getting that message. But they don’t have to because of the way politics is structured, where they get to be in power, and they get to throw money around, whether they win by one vote or by a million votes.
Juliette: Thank you so much, Nick, I had such a good time. And I learned a ton. So time for the final question. What is one thing you believed in at one time in your life that you later changed your position on? And why?
Nick: I think a big part of it is that when I started thinking about public policy, I thought that there were that smart people could come up with really good solutions, and especially when it came to helping lower-income people, people with fewer resources than they needed to be guided, so that it would make sense, say, for people under the poverty line, which is it means people who are very poor that, you wouldn’t want to just give them money. And so then they weren’t poor anymore, but you would want to give it to them in the form of an education voucher or a health care voucher or a housing voucher or something like that, and restrict how they could spend it. Over time, I’ve come to believe that that probably introduces more problems than it solves and that it’s better to give people at every level, more control over their lives. And so when it comes to public policy, and particularly for poverty programs, it would be much better to just give somebody who’s poor, let’s say they’re $5,000 below the poverty line, instead of giving them a bunch of coupons that allow them to buy this under this circumstance, or this over here and whatever. Just give them the $5,000 and check in on them and help them and give them more resources to make wise decisions but give them more power over their lives. I think that took a while for it to sink in for me, but I think, it will work better.
Juliette: I think I get that. I mean, the way I’ve always thought of it. I guess because I’m young it’s like receiving an allowance but being like you can only buy history books. And then being like, but I want to read science fiction, and not being allowed to. And I mean, that never really happened to that extent with me as a child. But I feel like I’ve always kind of understood that idea of like, you give them money, it’s theirs to spend on what they want and need because their needs are not the same as yours, or what is best for them necessarily.
Nick: And this comes from recognition and a kind of philosophical level, a lot of libertarianisms is tied to individualism and kind of subjective, what Austrian economists, Austrian School economists would call the subjective theory of value, which is that we, you know, have different value systems where we want certain things more than others and that a system works better both politically, but economically and culturally as well when people are able to actually kind of pursue what they find more valuable or what they think is a higher priority. It’s conferring on people a lot of respect and autonomy and dignity. And it not only is philosophically or morally good, I think it ends up creating a better functioning system as well.
Juliette: Yeah. Thank you so much. I had such a good time.
Nick: All right. Well, thank you very much. It’s a real honor and a privilege.
Juliette: Well, that’s all we have time for today. I’d like to thank my guest once again for their time and insight. I would also like to thank everyone who listens, subscribes, and shares The Great Antidote podcast. If you would like to be on the podcast, or if you have a guest in mind, please feel free to reach out to me at The Great Antidote at cgo.org. Bye.