Bryan Caplan  

My Cato Address to Students for Liberty

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On Friday, the Cato Institute hosted a reception for Students for Liberty - and gave me the honor of welcoming them.  Here's what I said.

Welcome Students for Liberty!  I'm so happy to see all of you in the world's greatest cathedral of liberty.

It didn't look like this 23 years ago, when I interned for Cato.  In 1991, Cato fit in one mid-sized house, plus an annex across the parking lot.  I worked for Tim Lynch and Doug Bandow.  And I was also assigned a special task by David Boaz - throwing obsolete paperwork out of the file cabinets.  As a result, I was greatly amused by an E.J. Dionne footnote in Why Americans Hate Politics, "My thanks to Ed Crane and David Boaz of the Cato Institute for letting me read through their excellent files of clippings on libertarianism... To their credit, the libertarians save everything and not just the flattering stuff."  The files that Dionne perused had actually been cleaned out years earlier... by me!

While a great deal has changed at Cato since my internship, I'm pleased by how much has stayed the same.  I still remember David Boaz telling me that Cato aims to be "libertarianism with a human face."  My first-hand experience tells me that Cato lives up to this ideal: Promoting liberty with civility and a smile.

Ideally, of course, it's mutual civility and smiles.  But unilateral friendliness still beats the alternative.  Selling radical ideas is hard, but selling them with a chip on your shoulder is virtually impossible.  And in all honesty, there is plenty of truth in the stereotype of the hostile, insulting libertarian.  Yea, that was me.

If you don't like the stereotype, denying its roots in the facts is pointless.  It's far better to undo the negative stereotype by violating it - and politely policing our own.  Private police, mind you!  Students for Liberty has been doing yeoman work on this count.  From my first Students for Liberty Conference, I've been amazed by the social intelligence of the next libertarian generation.  I'm not sure how you're pulling it off, but please please please keep up the good work.

If you have any interest in nudging government policy in a more libertarian direction, Cato is the most valuable connection in the world.  Cato publishes on virtually every policy-related topic you can imagine: economic policy, social policy, foreign policy, you name it.  And it continues its long-standing big-tent approach.  Cato hosts every flavor of libertarianism from the most moderate to the most extreme - not to mention liberal and conservative fellow travellers.  What counts is sound reasoning and a positive attitude - not orthodoxy.

Hard-core libertarians occasionally grumble about Cato's moderation.  What they tend to forget is that Cato is trying to sell libertarian ideas to people who aren't already buying them.  Under the circumstances, avoiding "extremes" of anger and impatience is just common sense and common decency.  But that's not enough.  It's also important to make a wide range of views feel part of a shared endeavor.  I'm as extreme a libertarian as they come, but I'm still delighted to have moderates around.  If I'm not persuasive to moderate libertarians, I need to improve.

In a perfect world, Cato's worldly mission would already be accomplished.  Your job, as the next generation, would just be writing the history of statism's welcome demise.  As it turns out, though, the world remains light-years from libertarian ideals - and some relatively libertarian countries - especially the United States - have spent the last decade and a half back-sliding.  And enormous, flagrant violations remain even in the self-styled "free world."  Unless you're lucky enough to be born in a rich country, the world's governments legally exclude you from the best labor and housing markets.  A few years ago, I asked my readers to distinguish the status quo from the Jim Crow laws, and I've yet to hear a decent answer.

The persistence of statism is bad news for liberty, but good news for your careers and your free time.  There is an enormous amount of work and play for libertarians in public policy, academia, journalism, the arts, and - if you can stomach it - politics.  Some of it is intellectual, but even more of it is salesmanship.  Gandhi was right: You must be the change you wish to see in the world.  All of us can, like Cato, nudge the world in a freer direction with good arguments and good cheer.  This is, to put it mildly, an uphill battle.  But when I'm standing in the cathedral of liberty with the next generation of the liberty movement, I can't help but feel optimistic.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (3 to date)
Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Unless you're lucky enough to be borne in a rich country, the world's governments legally exclude you from the best labor and housing markets.

Markets are just people exchanging goods and services. They capture only a facet of the national life. The nation itself, and the lives of the individuals are bigger than markets.
In other words, nation is both bigger than and prior to the markets that are embedded in a nation.
The entire world is not a market. There is no universal labor or housing market from whose sectors some people are unjustly excluded.

David Boaz writes:

Thank you!

Dennis Sheehan writes:

Wonderful! Thoughtful, judicious, inspiring.

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