Libertarianism, Book/Article Reviews

C-SPAN Q&A Interview on Libertarianism

C-SPAN did a one-hour interview with me on my most recent book, Libertarianism. You can watch the video here. 

It was a bit of a surreal interview for me, in part because we discussed personal matters, rather than just the book. (One producer asked me to be forthcoming before the interview, and, as you’ll see, I was.)

I’ll probably blog a bit more on some of the questions from the interview over the next week or so.


Published on:
Author: Jason Brennan
  • Steven Horwitz

    A terrific interview Jason, but one serious error at the start. You lumped Mises in with the “hard libertarian”/natural rights crowd, and nothing is further from the truth. Mises clearly rejected the language of natural rights in many places. He was a utilitarian/consequentialist, and that’s very clear in his work – regardless of what positions supposed “Misesians” have argued in the past and present. Rothbard’s deontology was a deviation from Mises.

    Mises belongs, frankly, wherever you categorize Hayek. I think both belong in your “neo-classical liberal” category, though Mises certainly thought there was less for the state to do than did Hayek. Both of them, however, were consequentialists, and Mises was even more explicit than Hayek in talking about how the market served the needs of the poor better than alternative systems.

    • Hi Steve,

      Yeah, I realized I misspoke when I saw the show. I think of Mises as a hard libertarian in light of his conclusions about government, but I realize that he’s not a natural rights guy.

      • Steven Horwitz

        Yup. And I think that makes for some interesting conversation about your categories. Are they about the political position or the justification strategy or the style of argument? For example, what of people like me? I’m a thoroughgoing utilitarian/consequentialist and I share the N-C liberal concerns about social justice, but I also think the best way to achieve those goals is through an extraordinarily minimal, if non-existent, state. Am I a “hard libertarian?” Am I a neo-classical liberal?

        I tried to get at some of this here:

        • Fallon

          The exploration of difference between Hayek and Mises/Rothbard on the status of the apriori and its implications, especially concerning calculation, is extremely important and not to be papered over in effort to create peace. Besides, for all the history and bad blood– nobody has been killed. Let the chips fall where they may.

          That said, Dr. Brennan presents an additional angle. Gary Becker of Chicago School fame is a key source of economic thought for Brennan. Now you have Austrians v. Austrians and Austrians v. Chicagos. To add, Brennan has said flatly that Rothbard was a bad economist. Brennan will not say why he thinks this–and several attempts to get his thoughts on the matter have been met with silence. To be fair, Brennan did address why he thinks Rothbard is a bad philosopher.

          • Fallon, sorry, but I have no intention of taking the time to go through and explain why I believe Rothbard is a bad economist. It’s not worth my time. I just don’t care enough to do it. I’m not writing this to be flippant or mean, but I just want you to know that I’m not sneakily evading your request. I’m just not fulfilling it in light of the opportunity costs.

          • Fallon

            Ha! Plead the Fifth.

        • Sean II

          Whatever answer you get back, let me make the case that it will all come down to what’s behind door number 3: “style of argument”.

          If those categories were defined strictly by position, you’d already know which positions activate the trap door to which boxes. Even if it was just a lupus-style diagnostic test (“to qualify as a hard libertarian, one must take 4 of the following 11 positions…”), that would surely have come up in conversation before now. The same goes for justification strategies.

          Based on how the term has been used here, it seems a hard libertarian nearly always turns out to be someone who, in the name of consistency or moral courage, committed what Brennan regards as a rhetorical blunder poisonous to the libertarian movement – Rothbard with the starving kids, Nozick with the slave contracts, Rand with…20% of everything she ever wrote or said, etc.

          The definition starts out well enough: “hard libertarian = really uncompromising libertarian.” But when applied to real people, that breaks down to “hard libertarian = aggressive libertarian that treats those who disagree as hostile witnesses”. From there it naturally degrades to “hard libertarian = unlikable libertarian”. And then it’s just a short trip to “hard libertarian = any libertarian Jason Brennan doesn’t like.”

          I’m sure he’ll say that’s unfair, and I’ve missed the point, because he’s not an outreach-driven, movement-strategy guy, but merely a seeker of truth. I know, I know…that is the party line at BHL. I just have my doubts about it.

          • I like Mises, Nozick, and Eric Mack. I don’t like Rothbard or Rand.

          • Daniel Shapiro

            I heard half the interview so far, and loved it, Jason. And glad to see you mention Eric Mack, who in my view gets neglected.

          • Sean II

            So neglected in my case, that until being reminded today, I did not remember who he was…

          • Sean II

            I’m sorry. I guess it is unfair to say the category has degraded into “libertarians Jason doesn’t like”. But I still do think, in the absence of some clear line or test, it’s fair to say that it could.

            I remember listening to some podcast with you awhile back, where the introductory speaker made an interesting distinction between the “blank-blanks” (it might have been reverse engineers) and the “crazy rationalists”. The latter were people like Rothbard and Rand and Mises and Nozick, who having established some general principle, went on to deduce from it certain conscience-shocking conclusions (i.e. starving your own kids, not stealing the hypothetical $10,000,000 vaccine, etc.)

            Whether my initial comment was fair or not, it remains true that the hard libertarians all seem to have a common feature in that respect. Everyone of them has furnished our opponents with a devastating sound byte (or two or five), which they can forever hold up saying: “This! This blatant madness is what your libertarian Moses calls the promised land.”

            That doesn’t settle the question of whether they are right or wrong, but from your point of view, I’m sure it hardly seems coincidental.

  • Rick

    The debate over whether Mises is a “hard libertarian” seems to be related to whether government should have the power to issue money, because if it should, there’s no minimally invasive way for a government to do this.

    I’m not prepared for an extensive debate over this, nor do I know enough about Mises or Hayek to argue, but I think Jason was correct to categorize Mises as a “hard libertarian.” It’s true that Hayek advocated “free banking” in his “Denationalization of Money,” but he also expressed envy of the U.S. monetary system in that work, whereas Mises (in his “hardness”) didn’t seem to conceive of *any* form of government that could responsibly issue money.

    I came across this blog “Why is There a Debate?” at the Coordination Problem, which may save everyone time in re-stating the issues:

    • Rick

      Hayek states in “Denationalization of Money,” page 85:

      “Americans may be fortunate in never having experienced a time when everybody in their country regarded some national currency other than their own as safer. But on the European Continent there were many occasions in which, if people had only been permitted, they would have used dollars rather than their national currencies. They did in fact do so to a much larger extent than was legally permitted, and the most severe penalties had to be threatened to prevent this habit from spreading rapidly-witness the billions of unaccounted-for dollar notes undoubtedly held in private hands. . . .

      I must confess, however, that I am somewhat surprised that Professor Friedman of all people should have so little faith that competition will make the better instrument prevail when he seems to have no ground to believe that monopoly will ever
      provide a better one and merely fears the indolence produced by old habits.”

      I’d like to make two points here about the need for so-called “competing currencies,” which Hayek himself seems uncertain about (most likely because he knew little of U.S. monetary law evolution under the Constitution).

      First, Milton Friedman was quite right to withhold support for such a scheme. We need competing currencies to determine what is a “dollar” about as much as we need competition to decide what is a “pint” or “gallon.”

      Second, Hayek was incorrect in assuming that the U.S. has a monopoly on what a “dollar” is. The reality and main problem is that we do *not* have a monopoly on “dollar,” but rather a destructive competition occurring between privately-influenced Federal Reserve note “dollars” and Congress’s (presently suppressed) Treasury-Direct “dollars.”

  • Jam

    it was a surreal, personal interview b/c you were interviewed by a libertarian, Brian Lamb, but it takes one to know one, doesn’t it Mr BHL?

    • Is Lamb was a libertarian.

      And that’s Prof. BHL. I didn’t got to grad school to be Mr. BHL.

      • Jam

        i think he is, but he won’t admit it, but he reads Hayek, interviews people like you and Gillespie, and always ask the insider question of “what led you to libertarianism?”.

        and what else would drive a man to start a channel who’s sole purpose is to spy on the government? it was growing up witnessing the crony side of government via his dad’s beer distributorship.

  • Jason, I really enjoyed your interview on C-SPAN. I ordered the book and just received it today and I’m looking forward to reading it over soon. Your interview definitely helped sell me on buying your book.

  • Steve

    Hi Jason, I enjoyed the interview but I don’t think you did a good job representing a libertarian view about gun control. From my vantage point, part of the libertarian perspective is viewing the state as a the natural enemy to individual liberty if left to its own devices. This doesn’t mean no state can exist, it just means that by default the state (and yes, politics) needs to stay caged. The rationale, again, is that the state’s momentum (because of ‘fallen man’ or human nature) is one of centralizing power at the expense of liberty. Therefore, all laws restricting liberty need to overcome a very high hurdle. To me that means they must demonstrate an ability to affect a stated outcome that rationalizes the restriction. With gun control, it’s hard to make that connection based on the data. Further, it’s a severe restriction of a ‘last defense’ against the state. The burden, then, is enormously high – too high to be rationalized by anything but the most compelling evidence of efficacy. I think you made a great point about how difficult it can be to transplant policy between countries and assume success, and this must also be taken into account when viewing gun control, as the only data seeming to support a connection between gun control and lower crime comes from other countries, where, while murders per capita may be lower, violent crime is exponentially higher. Anyway, otherwise good, but thought I’d try to bring some color to your view on gun control. Thanks!